Case Cookus calls himself his harshest critic, part of a self-evaluation that's debatable when analyzing his unlikely path to Flagstaff, Arizona.
He played wide receiver most of his life, and his only experience as a starting quarterback came in his senior season of high school. Four-year colleges noticed flaws more than talent, and he didn't play a down during his only year at Ventura College near his hometown of Thousand Oaks, California.
Cookus sent his film to schools hoping to get an opportunity elsewhere, and he eventually settled on Northern Arizona.
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“To be honest, it was the only school interested in me,” Cookus said.
Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers is the only one not kicking himself now. Cookus threw for 3,111 yards, led the nation with 37 touchdown passes, finished second with a 184.9 rating and tossed just five interceptions on his way to being voted the STATS FCS Freshman of the Year in a landslide.
But even Souers admits Cookus wasn't his first choice. Former Arizona quarterback Connor Brewer announced in April that he was transferring to Northern Arizona, and Souers planned for Brewer to step in and become the starter immediately.
Less than two months later, Brewer backed out of his commitment and instead chose to attend Virginia. Not only was Cookus a last-minute addition to the roster, he had to beat out two others in camp to win the starting job.
“When we lost who we thought was going to be our starting quarterback, we researched another candidate,” Souers said. “(Cookus) grew an awful lot out of high school, something like six inches. He was kind of flying below everyone's radar.
“There's something about him that puts you at ease. There hasn't been one iota of disappointment.”
Cookus dealt with enough of that before arriving on campus and was determined to prove his doubters wrong. He became the first freshman quarterback to start for NAU since 2003 and threw for at least four touchdowns five times, including a school record-tying seven in a win over Northern Colorado.
He also completed 68.9 percent of his passes to rank fourth in the FCS, a statistic made even more impressive by the fact that he faced constant pressure while being sacked 27 times.
Not bad for someone who most of his previous coaches felt would be better off catching passes than throwing them.
“Every time I play I kind of have that chip on my shoulder,” Cookus said. “I don't know what it was about me that people didn't like, whether it was my weight or my arm strength or what. But that's in the past now and I'm enjoying my time here.”
Souers, who has coached Northern Arizona since 1998, couldn't be more thrilled to have Cookus as the Lumberjacks try to make a push in the highly competitive Big Sky Conference. They went 7-4 and 5-3 in league play to finish tied for fourth, ending up as the only team of the five not ranked in the final STATS FCS Top 25.
Souers is adamant that Cookus' gaudy numbers aren't solely a product of Northern Arizona's wide-open offensive style. He believes Cookus isn't just a system quarterback and would succeed in any offense.
“We have high hopes for him,” Souers said. “He just had a remarkable year. You'll never hear of that kind of efficiency out of a freshman quarterback.”
Cookus insists that he isn't surprised with his success in his first season, no matter how unlikely it seems to those on the outside looking in. He's taking in stride being named the top freshman in FCS and said he's not done trying to break records.
“It's something that's always cool to get, but it's something that as a player you try not to get caught up in,” Cookus said. “I don't want to live in the past and always want to be moving forward. I'm excited for the future.”
Final voting results:
1. Case Cookus, Northern Arizona: 107-13-7-3-4-618
2. John Santiago, North Dakota: 15-79-14-10-4-457
3. Andrew Van Ginkel, South Dakota: 1-8-28-14-10-159