With a bigger emphasis on local recruiting and upgrading facilities over the past four years, Northern Arizona has gone through a resurgence under long-time head coach Jerome Souers.
After failing to win seven games a single time between 2004 and 2011, Souers has led the Lumberjacks to a 31-15 record since their last losing season, a 4-7 mark in 2011. In 2012, NAU had a stark turnaround, posting an 8-3 record including a 6-2 showing in the Big Sky.
The backbone of this revival came in the form of two strong local recruiting classes in 2010 and 2011 that featured running back Zach Bauman (Hamilton HS), cornerback Anders Battle (Desert Vista) and tight end Dejzon Walker (Basha).
Bauman is the only player in NAU history to eclipse the 4,000 and 5,000-yard career rushing marks. As a junior in 2012, Bauman led the team with eight touchdowns and 225 carries for 1,182 yards for an average of 107.5 yards per game.
Battle, also a member of the 2010 recruiting class, led NAU’s defense in 2012 with 64 tackles earning Big Sky First Team honors and was named the team’s Defensive Playmaker of the Year.
A 2011 recruit, Walker led NAU in receptions in 2012, averaging 50.5 yards per game. A year prior, Walker was named NAU Offensive Newcomer of the Year and College Sports Madness Big Sky Freshman of the Year.
With Arizona recruits making a clear impact in 2012, the re-emphasis on local recruiting became a vital aspect of the team’s success, something Souers reiterated headed into his 19th season with the program after becoming the Big Sky all-time leader in conference wins (72) last year.
“Our priority is always going to be recruiting the state of Arizona and I think we've proven once again that a lot of the very best Arizona has to offer ends up with a Lumberjack jersey on,” Souers said in a statement posted by NAU on National Signing Day.
The Lumberjacks nabbed 12 local recruits this year, but more importantly, the success and evolution of their current local products is the key element of NAU’s 2016 team and preseason hopes.
This year, NAU was picked to win the Big Sky by both media in the preseason poll and the league’s football coaches. The Lumberjacks are ranked No. 24 in the FCS College Football Rankings after finishing 2015 with a 7-4, 5-3 record in conference play.
NAU junior wide receivers Emmanuel Butler (Mountain Pointe) and Elijah Marks (Desert Edge) lead a group of local recruits looking to hold starting roles in 2016. Both were ranked as two-star recruits by Scout.com coming out of high school.
Butler, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, set the NAU record last year in receiving yards with 1,208 and tied the program record with 15 touchdowns. He was named to the Big Sky Preseason All-Conference team.
At Mountain Pointe, Butler was a three-year starter, captain and was named All-Region and All-City. The program went undefeated and won its first state championship in school history in 2013.
Marks played in nine games and made one start last season for NAU, finishing with 26 catches for 293 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He tallied a career-high 96 yards and three touchdowns in NAU’s last regular season game against Sacramento State.
The Goodyear, Arizona native was the West Valley Player of the Year before committing to the Lumberjacks in January 2014. Marks broke the state receiving record as a senior with 113 receptions for 2,153 yards and 26 touchdowns.
In addition to Butler and Marks in the air, senior running back Kendyl Taylor (Chandler) is looking to fill the starting spot held by former NAU running back and local product Casey Jahn.
Graduating from Northwest Christian High School (Peoria, Ariz.) Jahn was in the 2012 recruiting class and led the state of Arizona in rushing and scoring and finished with 7,333 career yards and 107 touchdowns.
Taylor, a transfer from the University of Washington, had 21 receptions for 204 yards and 52 carries for 249 yards with two touchdowns in his first year with NAU. At Chandler, Taylor was Arizona’s Division I Player of the year by Arizona Varsity and earned First-Team All-Arizona by the Arizona Republic as a senior.
NAU’s offense to test ASU’s secondary
In addition to a handful of local recruits playing a major role in NAU’s offense, their first challenge will be traveling down to Tempe on Saturday for a week one matchup against Arizona State.
NAU’s record-breaking sophomore quarterback Case Cookus is looking to test ASU’s secondary in his second season in the Lumberjacks newly-revised offense.
“We’re going to play a really good team that’s picked in the top of the 1-AA that is very capable,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham. “We’ve got to be ready.”
Last season, Cookus won the FCS Freshman of the Year honors following a 2015 campaign in which he threw for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound quarterback finished the season ranked second nationally in the FCS in passing efficiency at 68.9 percent. Cookus recorded five 200-plus yard passing games, three with over 300 yards and one 400-yard game.
Running a new offensive scheme under then-first year offensive coordinator Tim Plough, Cookus led NAU to average 50.8 points per game at home last season and an undefeated season at the Walkup Skydome for the second time in three years.
Plough changed NAU’s offense to a more pro-style, no-huddle offense after former NAU offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello was not brought back following the team’s 7-5 2014 season.
With this up-tempo, contemporary offense in place and ASU’s secondary still in flux to due injuries, NAU could potentially push the Sun Devil’s defense despite being an FCS team.
ASU senior safety Laiu Moeakiola has missed ASU’s last three practices and Graham said Moeakiola’s absence on Thursday was due to an appointment with a specialist to check out his hamstring.
If Moeakiola does not take the field against NAU on Saturday, junior safety Chad Adams looks to take his place across from sophomore field safety Armand Perry. At corner, ASU will most likely have sophomore Kareem Orr at boundary corner and De'Chavon Hayes at field corner in ASU’s base look.
Going up against an untested ASU’s secondary, Cookus could look to take advantage downfield early. NAU did lose three of its top four receivers due to graduation -- Walker, R.J. Rickert, and Alex Holmes -- but Cookus still has Butler, who doubled the receiving yards of the next-best receiver on the team in 2015.
After two top options in Butler and Marks, Oklahoma transfer Dallis Todd and Utah transfer Delshawn McClellon look to be Cookus’ top targets in the air.
This is the first time since 2012 that the Lumberjacks and Sun Devils will face off. Four years ago ASU dominated NAU, winning 63-6 at Sun Devil Stadium in Graham's first game as head coach.