NAU Preview

Sun Devil fans are anxious for the beginning of the Todd Graham era, perhaps not knowing what to expect from the 2012 ASU team. Yet, the opponent they will face, Northern Arizona University, is a foe that is naturally very familiar and one that hasn't made life easy for its big brother from Tempe throughout the years.

Head Coach: Jerome Souers (15th year, 76-82 at NAU)

2011 Record: 4-7

Last Meeting with ASU: Sept. 11, 2010: ASU 41, NAU 20

Much to the shock of the host Sun Devils, NAU remained neck-and-neck with ASU as the Devils carried only a 27-20 edge to start the fourth quarter before chipping in two unanswered touchdowns in the final period.

Sun Devil quarterback Steven Threet paced the Devils with 391 passing yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Wide receiver Mike Willie hauled in eight receptions for 114 yards and a score while Aaron Pflugrad totaled 77 yards on eight catches. Jamal Miles and Kerry Taylor added touchdown receptions for ASU.

Though ASU had a prominent evening through the air, the Sun Devil run game was non-existent even against its FCS foe as ASU managed only 56 yards on 29 carries—a paltry 1.9-yard average per carry.

For NAU, quarterback Michael Herrick totaled 131 passing yards with one touchdown and one interception. Zach Bauman carried 22 times for 56 yards with a touchdown and Khalil Paden caught Herrick's lone touchdown pass.

On defense, Vontaze Burfict led the Sun Devils with 11 total tackles while Bo Moos added six. Matt Estrada led the Lumberjacks with 11 total tackles.

ASU's Thomas Weber and NAU's Matt Myers each connected on a pair of field goals.

Offense Preview

Entering his third year at NAU after a standout career at Chandler's Hamilton High School, running back Zach Bauman has become one of the most productive and impressive players at the FCS level at his position. Last season, Bauman surpassed 1,400 rushing yards with 16 total touchdowns on his way to Second-Team All-America honors and enters his junior year with approximately 2,500 career rushing yards and is a legitimate candidate for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.

Bauman has skill set to match up with an FBS defense such as ASU's and the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder also likely will enter Sun Devil Stadium with a little extra mojo as he undoubtedly will want to show Phoenix area football fans that he deserved to have been an FBS level recruit.

One of the most intriguing offseason additions to the Lumberjack roster is former California Golden Bear Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson, who strongly considered ASU during his recruitment out of Chandler Hamilton High. Playing behind stellar runners such as Jahvid Best, Shane Vereen and Isi Sofele, Deboskie-Johnson managed only 321 yards in three seasons on the field in Berkeley.

After completing his undergraduate degree last spring, he relocated to Flagstaff to join his brother, Ca'leve, on the Lumberjack roster and play his final college season. Deboskie-Johnson brings experience, leadership and definite talent to the roster and should form a formidable Hamilton Husky duo for the ‘Jacks beside starter Zach Bauman.

A second-team All-Big Sky member at wide receiver in 2010, Austin Shanks redshirted last year and now will battle for time at his new position, running back, as will new junior college transfer Daniel Pipkin.

Casey Jahn, Arizona's all-time leading high school rusher, entered the mix for playing time this fall while special teams standout Jamaal Perkins will also add depth at running back.

Also in the backfield, former Boise State transfer Jake Hess returns after an excellent 2011 season that landed him on the All-Big Sky Second Team.

In addition to Bauman's well-rounded talents, quarterback Cary Grossart returns after a highly efficient season in which he ranked fifth in the FCS in pass efficiency. Last year, Grossart threw for 2,745 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 65.9% of his passes. Grossart also has some mobility to show off as he finished with 68 net rush yards last year after accounting for yards lost on sacks.

Grossart's top target, Khalil Paden, departs after nearly notching a 1,000-yard receiving season in 2011 but Ify Umodu hopes to fill the void after catching 50 passes for 667 yards with four touchdowns a year ago. Dejzon Walker is a bit of a wide receiver/tight end blend at 6-foot-3, 225-pounds, and he enjoyed an excellent freshman season in 2011 with 22 receptions for 328 yards and three touchdowns.

Nick Cole, a speedster who formerly was a member of the Oregon Ducks, looks to emerge as a key contributor after an injury-plagued year in 2011. Jeremy Dang, Brandon Babineaux, Jesse Bueno, Ca'leve Deboskie and junior college transfer Jesse Brantley are among the wide receivers also expected to see action in 2012 for NAU.

At tight end, NAU is excited about its group consisting of Drew Emanuel, R.J. Rickert and Beau Gardner. Rickert was moderately involved in the pass game last season and brings a versatile skill set to the lineup while Emanuel is credited with his blocking abilities. Gardner, a former Mesa High standout, figures to be a viable contributor to the group after seeing substantial field action in 2011.

The offensive line figures to consist of Joe Gurski and Chris Pitts battling at left tackle, Kyle Walker at left guard, Shane Moniz at center, Roy Garcia at right guard, Trey Gilleo at right tackle with Matt Wilson as a top reserve at either right guard or right tackle. Gilleo and Walker are the standouts of the group, having earned Honorable Mention All-Big Sky recognition in 2011.

NAU Offense in a Nutshell

When the Lumberjacks have the ball, expect to see Bauman, Bauman and more Bauman. On the occasions they opt for an alternative, look for Grossart to engineer an efficient attack in an attempt to process drives against the Devils.

Umodu and Walker bring great size to the pass game, while Cole figures to be the top candidate to stretch the field. In addition to his rushing prowess, Bauman is highly qualified receiver for screens and check-down passes.

ASU figures to present some force against NAU, especially in light of the fact that the Lumberjacks ranked 95th in tackles-for-loss allowed and 98th in sacks allowed last season. If ASU can penetrate and punish Grossart, the Jacks will be hard pressed to gather much yardage. However, an area of opportunity can exist if ASU is overzealous in its pursuit and/or if the Lumberjacks can hold up at the line of attack.

NAU ranked 14th in the FCS in total offense last year and 20th in pass offense, so the collective pieces are in place to move the chains if the Lumberjacks can keep the Devils off their backs.

Defense Preview

Starting up front, the Lumberjacks have some major rebuilding to conduct on the defensive line. Though NAU returns a couple all-conference candidates in Jarret Bilbrey and Tim Wilkinson, the two are the only returning defensive linemen to have entered the scorebooks in 2011.

NAU will be counting on a host of transfers and freshmen to fill out the remaining depth, including former Boise State Bronco and Scottsdale Saguaro alum Justin Jungblut who is expected to make a quick impact.

The Lumberjack linebackers are much more tenured than the defenders up front, as seven players with prior game experience return for 2011. Craig Frum returns as NAU's leading tackler from 2011, with Brandon Phillips having also been a contributor a year ago. Eric Storey, Tevin Ray, Austin Hasquet and Ryan Reardon are among the linebackers likely to vie for action. Nick Ragland-Johnson also looks to make his return to the lineup after missing all of 2011 due to injury.

Blake Bailey and Anders Battle could be the likely starting duo at cornerback, with others such as Mike Dosen, Randy Hale, Jr., and Devin Willis also in the fold.

At safety, three players named Taylor—Julio, Malenfant and Patton—figure to round out the top of the depth chart with multiple junior college transfers poised to battle for game reps as well.

NAU Defense in a Nutshell:

Statistically, NAU's defense by-and-large was subpar in 2011 with some major areas of deficiency in turnovers gained (115th in FCS) and pass defense (109th). However, the Lumberjacks had a reputable rush defense, ranking 35th in the FCS.

In all, the ‘Jacks ineptitudes in forcing turnovers and in the general pass game could cause major difficulties if continued against ASU. If NAU gives Sun Devil quarterback Taylor Kelly and company ample options through the air, ASU can then create a run-pass balance that can flatten the Lumberjacks. Additionally, with a need for advantageous proactivity as NAU will have Thursday, the team will need to facilitate as many turnover opportunities as it possibly can.

In essence, if Northern Arizona allows ASU to have free will with its offensive play calling and is unable to surprisingly cause turnovers, the Lumberjack defense likely will be on its heels all evening.

Special Teams Preview

With kicker Matt Myers and punter Drew Zamora gone from last year's roster, NAU will turn toward new key pieces at both spots.

Ryan Hawkins, a two-time first-team all-state member while at Peoria's Sunrise Mountain High School, will compete to be NAU's kicker, while Brian Drulias was a standout at both kicker and punter at Diamond Bar (Calif.) High School.

Junior Andy Wilder saw limited action at punter in 2010 and on kickoffs last season.

Backup running back showed some dynamic powers on kickoff returns last season, with a 40.7 yard average on his seven returns including a 99-yard touchdown. Ca'leve Deboskie was also a top kick returning in 2011 while Nick Cole also provides the ability to excel on special teams.

Taylor Malenfant served as the main punt returner last season and averaged 9.1 yards on 19 returns.

Conclusion

The Lumberjacks are expected to provide a marked improvement in the win column, as evidenced by earning the second-most votes outside the FCS Sports Network Top-25 preseason poll two weeks ago.

Bauman has the ability to eat up yardage, even against an FBS level defense, and Grossart is savvy enough to take advantage of overzealous defenders if properly protected.

The determining factor potentially will be how precise and efficient ASU begins; with new pieces across the vast majority of the offense—both in the starting lineup and elsewhere in the depth chart—the possibility exists for the Devils to be rhythmically challenged out of the gates. If the Sun Devils happen to stumble early, NAU can take advantage and use its key offensive veterans to remain competitive.

On the other hand, if Todd Graham comes out with guns blazing looking to have his Devils explode into the team's new era, the Lumberjacks may be forced to play catch-up from an early point.

This particular matchup, largely because of the "chip on the shoulder" mentality NAU brings to Tempe, has recently been way too close for comfort as in two of the past three meetings NAU has been within a touchdown of ASU starting the fourth quarter.

Games against FCS level opponents often are seen as "no win" situations and regardless the division and details about the opponent, the Sun Devils had better be prepared to take care of business early and effectively as even a winning effort, if poorly fashioned, can be major cause for concern.

Keys to a Sun Devil Victory

Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

Games like this can be an opportunity to flex muscle or can show some unsightly areas of flab; some declare matchups with FCS teams as no-win situations but ASU certainly shouldn't adopt that outlook. As we all know, seemingly at least once or twice a year a BCS conference team is upset by an FCS foe so the Devils can't simply view this as a chance to play the role of a playground bully. In essence, this game sometimes requires a balance between exerting superiority, rotating depth players and minimizing playbook usage while also not underestimating the lower division opponent.

Attack and Execute

With a new coaching staff and several new faces all across the board for the Sun Devils, the fear could exist that ASU may stumble out of the gates as it tries to get its bearings early in the season debut. Undoubtedly there are many unknowns and many variables in terms of the true potential and expectations for this team, so fan and team morale will accelerate noticeably if ASU can be efficient and effective in all facets. Conversely, if the Devils happen to stumble and struggle with continuity on offense, defense and/or special teams, long-term concerns will undoubtedly start to surface.

Righting the Wrongs: Step One

Fans and critics have been widely pleased with the discipline and work ethic Todd Graham has instilled in the team since his arrival last December. As encouraging as it's been, it'll have no meaning if not shown come game time. Excessive penalties, stupid turnovers, mental lapses and poor composure sadly were trademarks of recent teams and are traits that absolutely have to be put to rest. Thankfully, these are characteristics that can be shown against any opponent and Thursday, due to the level of opponent, will be a good opportunity to gauge ASU's collective level of focus.

Familiar Faces

• CB Anders Battle's brother, Allante, recently graduated from ASU after competing as a track athlete for the Sun Devils. Allante also spent one season with the football team as a redshirt in 2008, while their brother Avory also spent time on ASU's football roster. Their father, Greg, starred at linebacker for Arizona State from 1982-85.

• CB Anders Battle, WR Matt Gernanen and S Ryan Wagner all attended Phoenix Desert Vista High School, as did ASU's Marcus Washington.

• RB Zach Bauman, RB Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson and QB Kyren Poe attended Chandler Hamilton High School, as did ASU's Jaxon Hood and Anthony Jones. ASU was one of Deboskie-Johnson's finalists during his recruitment in 2008 before he signed with California.

• WR Jeremy Dang and LB Anthony Harrington attended Peoria High School, as did ASU WR Jamal Miles.

• TE Beau Gardner and ASU S Keelan Johnson were teammates at Mesa High School.

• FS Jake Johnston attended Eagle (Idaho) High School, as did ASU QB Taylor Kelly.

• DL Justin Jungblut attended Scottsdale Saguaro High School as did DT Corey Adams, RB Danny Clark, RB D.J. Foster, LB Brock Haman, OL Kody Koebensky, DE Jordan McDonald and TE Max Smith of ASU. Jungblut was coached by current ASU staff member John Sanders at Saguaro.

• OL Dylan La Frenz was verbally committed to ASU in 2011 before signing with NAU.

• TE R.J. Rickert was a position-mate of ASU's Kody Kohl at Gilbert Mesquite High School.


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