If you're looking from the outside in, most people would think that the 2014 season would be a rebuilding year for Northern Arizona University Football; this is not the case on the inside. The Lumberjacks know that they have a big void to fill in the run game with the loss of All-American Zach Bauman to graduation, but they believe that they have multiple pieces to the puzzle to fill the gap.
Highlighting NAU's roster is the return of eight starters on offense, two on defense, and three on special teams. Guiding the Lumberjacks will be Academic All-American and All-Big Sky honoree senior linebacker Austin Hasquet. Under his leadership NAU plans to continue its domination on defense that it is known for; especially after leading the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in defensive touchdowns in 2013.
"Austin brings a tremendous production record since he's been here; on-an-off the field," said head coach Jerome Souers. "His development as a player and leader has been really strong. He's very demanding of himself, and presents himself as a natural leader to his teammates. He draws the respect of not only the defensive players, but offensive ones as well."
Taking the reins at the quarterback position for NAU will be junior Kyren Poe. The Mesa, Ariz. native started eight games a year ago, and led the team with 163 completions for a total of 1,602 yards. Poe is capable of throwing and running the ball, as he finished third on the team in rushing yards with 173.
The Lumberjacks did not lose any of their quarterbacks, which is a good sign after NAU tallied 2,425 passing yards to its opponents' 2,289. NAU's offense completed 387 passes en route to an average of 202.1 yards per game and 14 touchdowns.
"We have worked in the offseason to improve our protection aspect of the offense, in addition to some of the things we're doing with the passing game," said Souers. "We would like to highlight more of the throwing game as we approach the 2014 season and present a more balanced attack to our defenses this year."
It's no secret that NAU will deeply miss the talents of Bauman. When it came to running the ball, he finished his time at NAU as the career leader in rushing yards, carries, all-purpose yards, and points scored. Bauman is the only player in NAU history to eclipse the 4,000 and 5,000 career rushing yards marks, and became the first running back in school history and ninth player in FCS history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons.
"In our program, we've always attempted to be balanced," said Souers. "We're at our best when we're 50/50. It became easy to lean on Zach's effectiveness because sometimes regardless of the number of defenders they (opponents) would have on him, he was still productive."
Stepping up to the plate will be junior Casey Jahn. He appeared in all 12 games and finished second on the team in rushing with 202 yards. Jahn averaged 3.8 yards per rush and 8.8 yards per catch.
After redshirting last season, freshman Corbin Jountti will give NAU added depth at the position. Jountti was a 2013 U.S. Army Arena Bowl participant and a two-time first-team all-league choice out of Liberty High School, by the way of Bakersfield, Calif. Jountti was able to learn from Bauman and Jahn during his first year with the program, and should be able to step up where needed.
Preseason All-American fullback Nick Butier returns for his junior year, after a sophomore season that ended with All-Big Sky Second Team honors. Butier appeared in 12 games with seven starts, while blocking for Bauman in the backfield.
"I can't say enough about Nick's value as a versatile player," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello. "He's an incredibly talented weapon that can do a lot of things. I see him emerging this year as a critical piece to what we do on offense."
Despite losing the top two wide receivers to graduation, NAU has plenty of talent left in the pool. Seniors Dejzon Walker and Ify Umodu are more than capable of leading the receiving corps and putting up big numbers. Walker is the top returning receiver from last season with 361 yards on 24 catches, while Umodu, who sat out last season due to injury, had 35 catches for a total of 481 yards in 2012. In addition, junior Alex Holmes had a solid sophomore campaign, competing in every game last season and registering three touchdowns.
"Dejzon and Ify are not only tall, but physical," said Souers. "They're great at going up and getting the ball, and their route running and understanding of our offense has improved. In addition, Alex is a great competitor and can create a lot of mismatches with his route running ability."
In addition to the talented group of receivers that NAU returns, Coach Scangarello is optimistic about the freshmen class.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens this fall," Scangarello said. "I think that any of the freshmen wide receivers could be impact players immediately, but I expect that Tyler Brown and Marquice Paige could be kick returners and see playing time early."
NAU sports a trio of tight ends that have the talent to give many defenses a lot of trouble. All-American tight end R.J. Rickert brings leadership to the offense. Rickert, a First Team All-Big Sky selection in 2013, tallied 246 yards on 22 catches as a junior. Other returning tight ends will be senior Beau Gardner and sophomore Patrick Baldenegro. Gardner started six games last season and averaged 11.3 yards per catch. Baldenegro was the only true freshman on offense that saw playing time last season. He appeared in all but one game, and averaged 12.7 yards per catch with one touchdown.
"I think the health of the offensive line is critical to our success this season," said Scangarello. "Last year, we had a number of injuries up front, so we relied on Zach a lot more. I think this year we'll be able to throw the ball around. We have incredibly gifted receivers and tight ends, which will give us a chance to be explosive in the pass game."
When it comes to the offensive line, just look to the center and you'll find senior all-conference honoree Roy Garcia. He transitioned from right guard to center after the first game without a problem due to injuries on the line. Jacob Julian, a redshirt freshman a year ago, showed his toughness and was recognized by the league with all-conference second team honors. Sophomore Eric Rodriguez, another redshirt freshman last year, started all 12 games giving NAU three returners on the line.
"The number one impact is the return of Joe Gurski," said Scangarello. "He's an all-conference left tackle that's as good as anyone in the conference. To lose him last year and never have him for a down, was a big blow. It impacted a lot of other players, and as a result Eric and Jacob got a lot of playing time early in their careers. The growth they showed over the spring was tremendous, and I expect their solid play to carry over into the fall."
Guiding the offensive linemen will be first year coach Adam Stenavich, who will bring his collegiate and NFL experience to the table.
"We look forward to this year with a combination of improvements in our offensive line protection and quarterback play," Souers said. "Being able to give time to filter reads and for our receivers to match up and create the kind of advantages we look for is a necessity."
NAU's offense is packed with many players that have seen playing time over the years, but will need time to get adjusted to their new roles. Seventeen letter winners return for the Lumberjacks who plan to keep the #NAUTakeover going.
Will it be hard for this year's defense to match the impressive play of last year's? Yes, but they are very capable of handling the challenge. The Lumberjacks lost eight defensive starters to graduation, and along with that nine of their top 10 tacklers. The bright spot for NAU is the return of Hasquet, who led all Lumberjacks in tackles and interceptions last season. Another upside is junior Marcus Alford, an all-conference honorable mention cornerback. Alford started all 12 games.
"There will be a lot of new faces, but I am very impressed with the work ethic of the players that were here in the spring and summer," said defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Andy Thompson. "They are preparing as well as any group that we have had in the past. I'm excited for the season to see that hard work will pay off."
Hasquet had a nice season as a sophomore, but it was his stellar junior campaign that shined the light on non-believers. He registered a team-high 91 tackles, recorded eight or more tackles in eight games, and led the team in tackles six times. Hasquet also recorded 12 tackles in a game twice; the only player to reach the mark.
If his on-field play wasn't enough to warrant merit, his academic success put him over the threshold. Hasquet garnered numerous academic accolades, including CoSIDA Academic All-American First Team honors - becoming only the 10th student-athlete in NAU history to earn the recognition.
In addition to Hasquet, senior Craig Frum is expected to bounce back after an injury sidelined him for the majority of the 2013 season.
"Craig is a fifth-year player that has played a lot for us over the years," said Thompson. "I expect him to bring his experience to the field and have a great senior season."
A coaching change on defense will be the addition of cornerbacks coach TJ Rushing. The former Super Bowl XLI champion and Stanford product enters his first season with NAU. Rushing will assist in the development of Alford, who tallied 26 tackles and five pass breakups.
"Marcus is as athletic a player as we have on our team," said Souers. "He's a great return specialist as well as a cover corner. What you'll find out about Marcus is that he's one of the smartest players on the field. We'll need for him to step up into a leadership role in the backend, and his ability to affect the newcomers will be imperative for us to develop as a defense."
For the safeties, there will be a battle for playing time with multiple guys that can grab a starting role. Rob Watson and Shawn Sharkey are two seniors that played a reserve spot last season, while transfers Eddie Horn and Darius Lewis will challenge the veterans.
Returning members of the FCS-leading defensive touchdown group include Hasquet, Alford, Hale Jr., and Harrison Johnson. Although NAU lost a lot of stars on defense, many of the big play makers return.
Junior Zach McDonnell is the lone returning starter on the line, further emphasizing how stellar the 2013 senior class had been. McDonnell showed great leadership this past spring and will be called upon to continue that role into the fall.
"Zach is a blue collar, hardworking player," said Thompson. "He will get an opportunity to make a lot of plays this year and guide the young linemen."
Expected to step right up to the plate is defensive lineman Siupeli Anau, a Phoenix native from Scottsdale Community College. He'll be called upon to help the pass rush along with some talented freshmen.
The nickel spot is open, with the graduation of Mike Dosen, but Thompson believes that redshirt freshman Jabari Marshall has shown promise at the position.
"I'm really excited to watch Jabari play, "Thompson said. "He's been under our program for a year working hard now it's time to watch him take the field."
NAU's defense will sport a mixture of familiar faces, as well as new ones, as it attempts to stay amongst the best in the league.
The Special Teams
It will be hard to replace an All-American like Andy Wilder, but the Lumberjacks have a newcomer in Ben Sweet that could make a debut as a true freshman. Last season Wilder set a school record for most punt yards in a season at 3,201. The year before, he led the nation in punting with 46.3 yards per punt with 25 punts of 50 yards or more. NAU will also miss his presence on PATs, as Wilder had been the main field goal kicker for the last two seasons.
When it comes to kickoffs, the Lumberjacks return junior Ryan Hawkins. In 2013, Hawkins recorded 58 kickoffs for a total of 3,561 yards and an average of 61.4 yards per kick.
"This will be the year where we'll be developing the starter in camp," Souers said. "In the spring, Ryan showed major improvements in all aspects of his kicking. Ben will come in and challenge as well, so although we'll be inexperienced I think we have the kind of talent that in the long haul will replicate the kind of production in the punt and kicking game that we've had in years past."
2014 NAU Football Fall Camp Schedule
August 5 – 4pm
August 6 – 4pm
August 7 – 4pm
August 8 – 4 pm
August 9 – 2:30pm (scrimmage)
August 10 – Off
August 11 – 9:50am and 4pm
August 12 – 9:50am
August 13 – 9:50am and 4pm
August 14 – 9:50am
August 15 – 9:50am
August 16 – 4pm (scrimmage)
August 17 – Off
August 18 – 9:50am
August 19 – 9:50am and 4pm
August 20 – 9:50am
August 21 – 9am (mock game)
August 22 – 4pm
August 23 – 4pm
August 24 – 4pm
August 25 – Off
August 26 – 4pm
August 27 – 4pm
August 28 – 4pm
August 29 – Travel
August 30 – at San Diego State (season opener)