NFL draft: The best since Jimmy Garoppolo? Keep an eye on this small-school QB

When I wrote my “5 NFL draft prospects to watch” story for this week, I neglected to spotlight an FCS passer who has been rippling just beneath the surface in NFL draft circles recently.

His name is Case Cookus, which you might already be vaguely familiar with. He was involved in a viral play a few years ago that reached national audiences. (More on that tidbit in a bit.)

But first, let’s tell you a little about the Northern Arizona quarterback prospect who has overcome quite a bit to get to where he is now as a pro prospect. This season is the second time the 6-4, 210-pound passer has overcome a season-ending injury.

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First, Cookus suffered a shoulder injury that shut down his 2016 campaign a year after setting an FCS freshman record with 37 TD passes in 2015. Then last season, Cookus suffered a broken collarbone on his right side — the arm he throws with — and was shut down after only five quarters of play in 2018.

Now Cookus, who turns 23 years old in a few weeks, is one of only five passers in FCS this season to surpass the 1,000-yard mark through three games. And he’s got a big test Saturday against another FCS program with a legitimate NFL prospect.

For a player who has played at a lower level of competition, overcome a few major injuries and one who almost gave up football to become a fireman, that’s pretty impressive.

Northern Arizona QB Case Cookus has shown enough skill and resilience to be on NFL scouts' radars. (Getty Images)
Northern Arizona QB Case Cookus has shown enough skill and resilience to be on NFL scouts' radars. (Getty Images)

The best since Jimmy Garoppolo? One opposing coach thinks so

This season, Cookus has completed 58-of-98 passes for 1,020 yards with eight TDs and two INTs. Both picks came in the Lumberjacks’ 63-41 loss at Arizona two weeks ago, but Cookus kept firing away and throwing for 373 yards.

One of the picks came when Cookus was pressured and hit. The other came in a jump-ball situation. But in that Arizona game there were enough high-level throws — even if they came against some reserves — to open eyes. He’s got legitimate arm talent, nice athletic traits and some moxie.

There are warts to his game, too, such as taking too many sacks, missing open targets at times and believing he can make almost any throw. But Cookus is going to be looked at by NFL scouts as a fascinating project for the next draft cycle. Don’t be shocked if he’s picked late.

FCS No. 15 NAU heads into a nice test this weekend against No. 10 Illinois State that will be attended by NFL scouts. And Illinois State head coach Brock Spack gave a preview of what his team will be up against vs. Cookus.

"[Cookus] throws people open,” Spack said. “He's very accurate. He's really good. We've seen an NFL quarterback; [Cookus] is one.

“He's the best guy I've seen since [Jimmy] Garoppolo at this level."

The Redbirds also have a highly respected NFL draft prospect in the game — RB James Robinson. The hard-running Robinson figures to be the highest-drafted FCS prospect this coming spring, carrying a solid Day 3 grade entering the season and doing good work in the two games this season since he was held in check by Northern Illinois in the opener.

This game is a rare FCS regular-season contest with a pair of legitimate NFL prospects, one on each sideline. And don’t rule out the idea of Cookus continuing to elevate his stock. He was named to the Senior Bowl preseason watch list, and he’s also going to be a target of other pre-draft All-Star games such as the East-West Shrine game and the NFLPA game.

There’s also the question of his health and durability that must pass scouts’ muster, and he’s no guarantee to receive one of the coveted QB invites to the NFL scouting combine. But as he keeps racking up the numbers in his NAU career despite the setbacks, Cookus will be harder to ignore.

Will he be a second-round pick, a la Garoppolo? Not likely. But a seventh-round selection? It wouldn’t be stunning.

It’s likely that Cookus will surpass the 9,000-yard career passing mark (he’s 18 yards short) in the game and could end up surpassing former NFL QB Travis Brown’s school record for pass yards in a career (11,400). Cookus also is only 12 TD passes shy of breaking the school’s record, held by Jason Murrietta.

And despite Cookus’ two-pick game at Arizona (plus another two-INT game against the Wildcats two years ago), he has thrown only 16 interceptions in 1,047 attempts in his career.

After his brilliant freshman season in 2015, Cookus was named the Jerry Rice Award winner, given each year to the most outstanding FCS freshman in the country. The winner the year before? Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp, who is now a standout receiver for the Los Angeles Rams.

A QB called for targeting? Whoa

Cookus’ name first entered the national discussion late in the 2017 college football season. The red-hot Lumberjacks had won six straight heading into a game at Montana.

About halfway through the first quarter, this happened:

A quarterback! The targeting rule already was a hot topic that season before this call, and Twitter was ablaze with shock over Cookus being called for it. Some observers had never seen a QB flagged and ejected for such a call; some haven’t seen it since.

But since then, Cookus has made a name for himself for less ignominious reasons — as a draft prospect we need to keep close track of over the coming months.

Here are a few clips of Cookus in action:

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