(STATS) - Hours before kickoff of Northern Arizona's season opener inside an empty stadium, Case Cookus will experience a sensation he hasn't felt in almost a year.
"You're in your shorts and T-shirt, just throwing the ball around," he explained. "Then people start to show up and it feels like game day. You start getting excited, you get pumped."
No doubt Cookus will be jacked up Saturday night when the Lumberjacks face Arizona in front of what will be the largest crowd they'll see all season, but nerves may also creep in just before he takes his first snap.
Cookus will be playing for the first time since suffering a season-ending collarbone injury in the fourth game last year and he's trying to once again prove he's one of the elite quarterbacks in the FCS.
"I'm really excited," he said. "It feels like it's been forever since I was on the field in a live situation. I might have a little jitters here and there but I think after I throw my first pass I'll be right back where I used to be and comfortable in my situation."
Cookus has looked awfully comfortable in the pocket ever since he stepped on the field as a freshman two years ago. He won the 2015 STATS Jerry Rice Award as the FCS freshman of the year, setting the subdivision freshman record with 37 touchdown passes to lead NAU to a 7-4 record.
After watching him carve up defenses in his first year, both the league coaches and media agreed that Cookus would lead the Lumberjacks to their first conference title in 13 years in 2016, picking NAU as the preseason favorite in the Big Sky. There were no signs of a sophomore slump, as Cookus got off to a fast start. Through four games, he had an FCS-best 13 touchdowns to just one interception, with 1,173 yards and a 184.4 passing efficiency rating, but he wouldn't see the field again.
The Lumberjacks were hopeful an injury suffered in the third quarter in the conference opener against Eastern Washington was to his shoulder and he would be able to return, but X-rays later revealed it was in fact a broken collarbone, ending his season. Without its star quarterback, NAU limped to a 5-6 finish.
With Cookus back at the helm, expectations are once again high for the Lumberjacks, with both the media and coaches projecting them to finish third.
Sitting out obviously wasn't easy for Cookus but he made the most of being sidelined, studying game film and breaking down defenses with offensive coordinator Tim Plough.
"You kind of take a step back from the whole process," he said of being injured. "You're able to kind of step back and see things from a different view. Things that your coach told you and maybe you didn't believe it. And then you go, 'you know what, that's what coach talked about and that's why he said those things and that's why we're doing it.' You kind of get that view from not just a player but from where the coaches are up in that press box."
Cookus is now working with a new offensive coordinator in Brian Sheppard after Plough left to run the offense at his alma mater UC Davis, but don't expect things to look much different when the Lumberjacks have the ball.
"The offenses have a lot of similarities so it wasn't too much of a switch-up," Cookus said. "The biggest change was the lingo. We do what we do, we like to go fast, take shots downfield and get the ball to our playmakers."
Cookus has one of the most dangerous playmakers in the FCS in Emmanuel Butler.
A two-time 1,000-yard receiver and two-time All-Big Sky first-team selection, Butler was named to the 2017 STATS FCS Preseason All-America Team and the STATS FCS Walter Payton Award watch list. Cookus was also named to Payton Award watch list but was left off the Big Sky preseason all-conference teams.
Omitted from that honor is just added motivation.
"Coming back from the injury my name got dropped from the list of all-league players," he said. "It would be nice to come back and prove myself as a good quarterback again and prove that this injury didn't affect me at all."