With QB Case Cookus healthy again, Stars look dangerous in Week 1 win
After breaking his leg in last season's USFL title game, Case Cookus was as good as ever in the Stars' season-opening win over Memphis.
By Eric Williams
FOX Sports USFL Writer
MEMPHIS — It was just like he never left.
Philadelphia Stars quarterback Case Cookus' impressive run last season ended with a broken right leg in the USFL championship game, which ended up being a close loss to the Birmingham Stallions.
Fast-forward to the opening weekend for 2023, and a healthy Cookus picked up right where he left off.
The Northern Arizona product scorched the Memphis Showboats on Saturday, completing 20 of 29 passes (69%) for 212 yards and three touchdowns in Philadelphia’s 27-23 road victory at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
It was the season opener for both teams.
Cookus had an eventful offseason that included getting married just five days after having surgery to fix his broken ankle, then four months of rehab that eventually led to a stint on the practice squad for the Los Angeles Rams.
"I pushed really hard to try and get back in shape," Cookus said. "I worked on my footwork, cleaning up my base and my flexibility. It was a grueling rehab, but a lot of people helped me through the process.
"I feel so bad for my wife because we got married, and I sat on the couch for about a month and a half with my foot up. She’d go off and work, and I’d be there sitting on the couch all day. So, I want to thank her for taking care of me."
The favorite target for Cookus on Saturday was Cincinnati product Devin Gray, who finished with seven receptions for 77 yards on nine targets. One of them was a pretty, over-the-shoulder grab for a 14-yard score on a corner route late in the third quarter that gave the Stars a 27-17 lead.
"It’s been a big priority with such a short training camp — we just got together about a month ago — so we’ve been building chemistry every day," Gray said. "All the guys have been just getting reps in against different looks, just making sure we’re always able to help Case out."
Behind an enthusiastic crowd that turned out to see the return of professional football in Memphis, the Showboats rallied late in the fourth quarter to make it a game.
"The atmosphere was awesome," Showboats head coach Todd Haley said. "It was exciting. Just the crowd support and the energy — that’s something that our team is going to be able to use. Unfortunately, today it didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but that exceeded all expectations."
Memphis product quarterback Brady White led the Showboats on a 12-play, 42-yard scoring drive, punctuated by a 1-yard run by Alex Collins that cut Philadelphia’s advantage to 27-23 with 7:49 left.
After forcing Philadelphia to punt later in the fourth quarter, the Showboats got the ball on their own 20-yard line with 1:32 left. However, the Showboats' drive stalled at Philadelphia’s 40-yard line as White failed to connect with tight end Jay Jay Wilson while throwing across his body on fourth-and-6 with 34 seconds left.
Cookus and the Stars ran out the clock from there.
"Not good enough," White said, when asked to evaluate his performance. "You’ve got to make plays. I put this 100 percent on me. I know we had some other stuff, and it’s a team game. But as a quarterback, I feel the weight of the plays I did not make."
White completed 16 of 29 passes for 182 yards and two scores. But he also had a bad interception on the opening drive, when last year’s interception leader Channing Stribling picked off an errant pass from White near Philadelphia’s end zone.
The Stars turned that Memphis miscue into points, as Cookus led the Stars on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, capped by a 6-yard touchdown pass to Chris Rowland on a whip route for a 7-0 lead. Philadelphia would never trail from there.
Collins carried the offense for Memphis, totaling 88 scrimmage yards and a score.
Haley replaced White with 6-7, 250-pound backup Cole Kelley in the second quarter because of his experience running the two-minute offense. Kelley finished 2-of-5 for 16 passing yards.
Cookus to Coleman connection developing
Stars new addition receiver Corey Coleman made an impact in his first game with Philadelphia.
The former first-round NFL draft selection finished with four receptions for 65 yards, including a 35-yard catch on a seam route that put Philadelphia in scoring position on the team’s first drive of the game.
Coleman capped his day with a 6-yard reception that helped move the chains late.
"He’s stepped in and been very unselfish," Cookus said about Coleman. "He’s lined up wherever Coach (Bart Andrus) has asked him. And what Corey also does well is he runs his routes very clean. He’s very direct in what he does, and he’s easy to throw the ball to."
Gray was familiar with Coleman, with the two having worked together with the Kansas City Chiefs in training camp last year. Gray said Coleman brings another veteran voice to the receiver room.
"He’s a veteran guy who came in and has shown leadership," Gray said. "He’s shown different techniques on how to do things, and a different perspective. Also, he’s a new guy coming in, so he just brings a different juice."
Memphis pass rush heats up
While Cookus played well, the Showboats put pressure on him up front. Memphis sacked Cookus five times, including two each by edge rusher Greg Reaves and defensive tackle Jordan Williams.
The Showboats also had two blocked field goals, including defensive end Jeremiah Valoaga getting his hands on a Luis Aguliar 50-yard field goal and defensive back Karrheem Darrington knocking down an Aguliar extra point.
Andrus put half the sacks on Cookus.
"We had a couple in there, and Case will tell you, we probably should have thrown the football," Andrus said. "As things start to get blurry as the line backs up, sometimes you can’t get exactly the throwing angle you want. We’ll get better. Between scheme and technique, we’re about 50-50 on those."
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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