GLENDALE, Ariz. –- James Cowser’s eyes opened wide, honed on a football lying unattended. The Southern Utah defensive end sprung to action, scooped it up and scored on a 55-yard return. Touchdowns are rare for defensive players. This, Cowser always thought, should be the top of the mountain.
He left the field feeling underwhelmed. Nothing, it seems, compares to a quarterback sack.
“That’s the best moment in football,” Cowser said. “In college, I scored a touchdown and that was pretty great. A sack, though? That’s something special. Everything you’ve worked hard on comes together and you make a big play. After that, it’s pure elation.”
If that’s the case, Cowser spent his college years in a good mood. He had 47.5 sacks in four seasons a Southern Utah. That’s a Football Championship Subdivision record. So are the 80 tackles for loss in a storied amateur career, breaking a record previously set by Jared Allen.
Those numbers apparently didn’t warrant a draft pick, leaving some to wonder if they carried less weight when earned repping a smaller school. NFL teams went seven rounds without putting him on a selection card, a disappointment but not a death sentence.
Several squads wooed in the undrafted free agent, but he ended up signing with the Raiders. After three months in the system, Cowser considers it a good match.
“There were a lot of teams interested, and there’s always some anxiety about whether you selected the right one,” Cowser said. “After being here, it just feels right. No matter what happens (with the roster), this was the right choice.”
He ended up on a team needing reserve edge rushers, in a scheme where someone with his size and speed can thrive. He has worked primarily with the second unit during this training camp and has fared well to this point. A solid preseason could earn a roster spot, a pot of gold most undrafted players never find.
He’s in a strong position heading into that game, and is on the path toward gainful employment. Friday’s exhibition against the host Arizona Cardinals offers the first chance to apply what he’s learned and make some plays in the backfield.
He impressed evaluators with a nose for the ball and motor never low on gas. The 25-year old rookie – he postponed school to go on an LDS mission -- comes equipped with a level head and linear focus, traits required during a high-stress month with little margin for error.
“It’s a time to grow in all aspects of the game, like I would at any other camp,” Cowser said. “That’s all I’m trying to do. I don’t want to let the good go to my head, and I’m trying to avoid letting the bad psyche me out. Growth can be a tough, long process where mistakes are made and then fixed. That’s how you become a better player. I feel like I’m getting better here in Napa.”
Cowser desperately wants his football career to continue. Many leave NFL training camps and never again play professionally. In an edge rusher’s case, they can’t re-capture the elation of a quarterback sack. If that moment feels good, earning an NFL roster spot must be nirvana.
Cowser is trying to focus on the present, not his status on the depth chart or his odds of making a talented team. That’s easier planned than executed.
“It’s obviously on my mind. I am human,” Cowser said. “How could it not be? Everybody in my situation is worried about making the team. It’s a dream, and I want it so bad. But, if it’s all that’s on your mind, everything will weigh on your mind and you’ll make uncharacteristic mistakes. I’m not going to do that. I know I won’t because I’m staying focused on the present. I think about the task at hand. That’s easy in camp, because there’s always something to work on, always something to do.”
Like most superior athletes, Coswer can find motivation in anything. He has discarded a big one. Playing at Southern Utah, outside the NCAA’s top division did not place a chip on his shoulder or anywhere else. He isn’t worried whether his college stats mean less. He isn’t worried whether people think he’s pretty good…for an FCS player. Or whether he only excelled against inferior competition.
He doesn’t think that matters anymore. He's right. The Raiders don’t care. Plenty of big-conference players flame out in the pros. Cowser believes he belongs. Now he wants to prove it.
Raiders defensive tackle Justin Ellis told him so this offseason. The pair worked out together during downtime – they share an agent – and became fast friends in that time. Ellis offered tips to ease the professional transition, and said what he does as a Raider is what matters most.
“The coaches don’t care where you came from,” said Ellis, who went to Louisiana Tech. “It matters what you do after you get here. James is a good player. He fits in well.”