For the first time since Arizona State head coach Todd Graham’s inaugural game at Sun Devil Stadium in 2012, Northern Arizona will travel down the I-17 Saturday to take on the Sun Devils.
For many NAU players, their trip to the Valley will be a trip home.
With a handful of local products on the Lumberjacks roster, Saturday could be a chance to show ASU and its fans what type of in-state player they missed out on during recruitment. However, ASU is aware of the possible high-energy emotions coming into the game and plans to hold them in check.
“I feel like we are the big brother and we are going to try to keep it like that,” ASU sophomore safety Armand Perry. “Big brother versus little brother.”
And while the Lumberjacks are an FCS team, they do have FBS-caliber players and aren’t a team the Sun Devils can dismiss early in the season.
“This team put up a lot of numbers and yards against Arizona in week three,” Graham said. “That’s the big thing for us, we have to take care of the football and be physical with what we are doing.”
Against Arizona last year, NAU hung tight with the Wildcats until the second quarter when Arizona scored 35 points and went into halftime with a 42-13 lead. NAU finished the game with 347 yards on offense and 271 yards through the air.
Graham called NAU’s offense “the strength of their team” and with their offensive explosiveness, the Lumberjacks are a “very formidable opponent” for the Sun Devils.
“Going up against NAU picked on the top of their league, I think they were 7-5 last season, could have very easily been a team that won 10 games last year,” Graham said. “Very well coached, did a great job really talented receivers and receivers and quarterback, very impressed with their quarterback.”
The Lumberjacks were No. 2 in the Big Sky in scoring offense last season, averaging 39.3 points per game, only behind Montana State.
After a breakout season by then-freshman quarterback Case Cookus, the Lumberjacks were ranked at the top of their conference by both media and coaches headed into 2016.
ASU sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr called Cookus NAU’s best player on offense.
“He’s a guy that operates very well, can move, extend plays and had a lot of success,” Graham said. “In their game against Arizona last year they threw the ball with a lot of success, had a lot of explosive plays.”
And while NAU’s passing game is its top strength, junior defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood said the Lumberjacks will start out on the ground, testing the waters to see if they can get past ASU’s front seven.
"They are going to try to come out running the ball and see if they can run the ball on us," Smallwood said. "They throw the ball very well so our job is to make them one-dimensional so stop the run and make them have to pass. That puts us in a great position as a defense for us to know they can't run the ball so keep them passing the ball and that will keep us in a better position to defend it."
Last season, Cookus won the FCS Freshman of the Year honors following a 2015 season in which he threw for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound quarterback 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 over 50 points per game at home last season. Plough changed NAU’s offense to a more pro-style, no-huddle offense after former NAU offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello was not brought back after three years with the program.
Orr compares Cookus to Washington State quarterback Luke Falk and said in general, NAU’s offense is similar to WSU’s in terms of its passing game. Orr said they expect upwards of 60 passes on Saturday.
“We’ve been working on taking away the deep ball this fall because that’s what we gave up a lot last year and we’ve really been eliminating that and once we get that down I feel like we are going to be very good on the back end,” Orr said.
And while Cookus impressed last season, he didn’t achieve those marks all by himself. He had an FBS-caliber wide receiver at his dispense: NAU junior wide receiver Emmanuel Butler. Butler is a local product out of Mountain Pointe High School.
“On film sometimes he (Butler) will be covered really well and he (Cookus) will just throw it,” senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes said. “So they do have that connection, but we practiced against receivers who have connects with our quarterback and just gets us ready for this game.”
Hayes said ASU freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry and ASU junior wide receiver Ellis Jefferson most closely resemble Butler in his skill set, but come game day, Hayes feels like the secondary will “shut him down with our speed and fundamentally-wise, just by staying sound and getting our hands on him.”
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.
With Cookus often throws fade routes, Orr said he will have to defend Butler by taking away the outside, playing with leverage and using the help behind him.
ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is known for using a lot of fade routes in his offense so Orr said the secondary has been getting a taste of what’s to come at practice during fall camp.
“Their Butler kid at wide receiver is a very, very dominant receiver and him and Case, the quarterback, they’ve got this kind of know where the ball is located deal,” Graham said.
In addition to Butler, Perry said NAU junior wide receiver Elijah Marks also made an impression on him after watching film. Marks is another local recruit out of Desert Edge High School.
“They spread the field out and take a lot of deep shots and I’m sure if they watched film from us last season that’s what they are going to try to come here and do,” Perry said. “Throw some hot routes.”
Being the first game of the year for both teams, Perry said they are also preparing for any trick plays NAU might try and throw out in addition to studying up on new players in new positions.
However, overall, Perry said he’s confident in ASU’s defense, especially in the front seven handling the run game and the players on the back end.
“We got a good game plan coming up this week and I feel like this is going to be a big statement for the secondary,” Perry said.
While the Lumberjacks' offense is potent through the air, on defense, NAU was last in the conference in passing defense, giving up 294.4 yards on average per game.
This season, NAU is again young on the back end with two starting sophomore cornerbacks as well as a sophomore starting safety and sophomore starting nickel corner.
Despite these young defensive backs, ASU senior wide receiver Tim White said the Sun Devils expect NAU to come out blitzing so he expects a lot of man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
“They are a blitzing team and we expect them to come after us and we're going to go after them,” White said. “We are going to be aggressive and really play the game with passion. They do a lot of Cover 4 so it just depends on the distance, but they do Cover 4 and it’s something we are similar to. We see that here at Arizona State.”
For ASU to be successful against NAU’s defense, White said running the ball will have to be a key factor as well as being able to execute through the air.
"If we're running the ball well we're going to be able to take shots and hit our quick game and (sophomore quarterback) Manny Wilkins is going to be able to run also,” White said. “We have such a diverse offense that it's going to be extremely fun to watch and explosive"
Coaching at a smaller program at Southern Miss prior to coming to ASU, Lindsey said he knows NAU will come out with little pressure and nothing to lose.
“We’re expecting to see what we’ve seen on film, but we’ve got to be ready to change it up if they throw a wrinkle at us or if they throw something at us that we haven’t seen,” redshirt freshman quarterback Brady White said.
When it comes down to it, Lindsey said he just wants to make sure he calls and run plays that the players can execute. Doing “whatever it takes to win,” Lindsey said he will open up his playbook, granted it isn’t that big headed into the first game of the season.
Regarding NAU’s defense, Lindsey said across the board, he has been impressed with the Lumberjacks multiple fronts and coverages.
“Their defensive coordinator, I’ve been really impressed with him on how he moves guys around and they try to pressure you some and I think they are one of the better defenses in their league,” Lindsey said.
Last season, the Lumberjacks were No. 10 in the Big Sky in scoring defense, surrendering 34.8 points per game. NAU was also No. 11 in the conference in total defense, allowing 474.4 yards per game.
“I think it’s a challenge as in we might have to slow things down,” ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl said. “It (NAU) is not a top-notch school that we normally play, we go full speed and everything but it kind of messes up our footwork I would say a little bit and our attitude. They are not as fast as we are and that’s about it.”
While the Lumberjacks' defense is still a work in progress, NAU’s rushing defense was ranked significantly higher than its passing defense, coming in at No. 5 in the Big Sky and allowing 180 yards on the ground per game.
The NAU depth chart lists its defense as a base nickel defense with two main linebackers, Mike and Sam.
Senior linebacker Jake Thomas is the team’s biggest defensive playmaker from last season. Thomas is also a local product, coming out of Mountain Pointe High School.
Positioned as the Mike linebacker in NAU’s defense, Thomas made 10 starts last season, finished third on the team with 69 tackles, led the team with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Kohl said he knows Thomas through friends and he’s met him in the past. Calling him a “good dude” and “tough,” Kohl said he appreciates how he plays defense and everything he’s seen on film, but overall he’s just excited to go out and play against him.
The two defenders that finished ahead of Thomas in tackles last season -- Eddie Horn and Josh Bamrick -- both graduated.
“Every team has their own thing, it doesn’t really matter to us,” Kohl said. “We just play the game. We just need to play as one, no mistakes, no penalties and anything like that.”