Like most rookies, Joe Cohen greatly looked forward to last year's fourth and final preseason game against the Chargers because it's usually the best shot that late-round picks or undrafted free agents have for guaranteed playing time and a chance to audition their skills. But instead, Cohen's rookie year reached a swift and final end with just over 8 minutes to go in the third quarter when he was carted off the field after suffering a knee injury.
"When it happened and the way I went down, I was thinking this better be worse than a knee sprain because I look like a big baby out here," recalled Cohen. "I kind of knew it was more than a knee sprain but I didn't know it was the ACL. It hurt, but it hurt more emotionally than it did physically because right when I found out it was an ACL, I knew I had just missed my first season of professional ball and that's all I had been dreaming of since I was younger, so it was heart aching."
Surgery to repair the ACL injury also caused some physical aches, ones that Cohen pushed through with the help of his "Team IR."
"Jay Moore and Manny Lawson pretty much went through it all with me," said Cohen. "It was pretty tough, but with guys like that around you and the kind of training staff we have here, it helped me bounce back."
The threesome even got a little competitive when it came to rehabbing their respective injuries.
"I think we all tried to beat each other up here, and see who could get here first in the morning," said Cohen. "We definitely put in some work and we all pushed each other to do more so that we'd get better. I definitely thank those guys."
While his fellow rookie teammates gained playing experience in a season that seemed to inch ever so slowly along, the former Gators lineman did the best he could to sharpen his football skills from the sidelines.
"Whatever game was on, I'd watch and I'd always study the nose," said Cohen. "I'd try to compare myself and see what things they did better than me and try to figure out how I could improve. If we were playing, I'd always watch Bryant Young. There are only a few players who will do a move in practice and then be able to carry over and perfect it in a game. He's one of the only players I know who can really do that and just look so fundamentally sound, and that's how I want to be in the long run."
It's already seemed like the long run when it comes to his rehab. After going nearly four months straight at the facility, Cohen left for his home in Florida right before Christmas. As well as getting in some quality daddy time with his four-year old daughter, Cohen continued rehabbing and training until it was time to return to Santa Clara in mid-March for the 49ers off-season program. His participation in the program has been modified as a precautionary measure for his knee, but in pursuit of being bigger, faster and stronger, Cohen tends to push the envelope.
"Usually Wes, one of our athletic trainers, is outside with us and if I catch him watching someone else, I'll try to go ahead and run full speed," admitted Cohen. "It's not like I can really run fast anyhow, but it feels good to see what I can do. I know they want to play it safe and I definitely respect that because they know more about it then me, but I am putting my work in every day and trying to get better."
Topping Cohen's better list is obviously getting the knee 100 percent healthy so he can participate as much as possible in training camp, but specifically, he's working to maximize the power in his legs.
"I think the last few years I've been playing with upper body strength and right now what I'm working on is pure leg power," said Cohen. "Playing nose you definitely have to be able to hold some ground I want to be able to go four quarters and get a better pass rush and that's what I'm working on."
Despite an unfulfilled rookie year in terms of playing opportunities, last year's fifth-round pick at least feels in a better place than he did when he arrived wet behind the ears last May for the team's mini camp.
"Even though I didn't get to play, it's good to have a year under your belt to where you've been exposed at least," said Cohen. "You know the system and the ins and outs and you feel more comfortable around the other guys. Also, I know my coaches better and I know what they expect. There was a reason I got hurt last year, and it ended up to really being a learning year for me, and now I'm just ready to go right now. I'm ready to throw on some pads and hit."
And come training camp, the 49ers will also be ready to see what this young and promising defensive lineman has to offer the ball club.