Unfortunately in 2011, the Lumberjacks return only four starters on the defensive side of the ball, which should ultimately make repeating last year's impressive stats defensively very difficult.
The group is led upfront by preseason All-Big Sky unanimous selection Isaac Bond, who last season enjoyed first team All-Big Sky honors after sharing the team lead with 5.5 sacks. He also recorded five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles to go along with 32 tackles.
Since 1970, only one player in NAU history has recorded more career sacks than the 16 that Bond enters his senior season with. At 6-foot-4, 260-pounds, Bond uses his strength and athleticism to be disruptive in opponent's backfields. He won't be the best defensive end that Mickey Baucus faces all season, but he should prove to be a decent first test for Arizona's young left tackle.
Bond isn't the only talented defensive lineman that the Lumberjacks have, as junior Dan Pela earned preseason first team honors as well in the Big Sky. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive tackle is looking to take a step forward in his third season at NAU after putting up 27 tackles and 1.5 sacks a season ago.
Pela isn't going to overwhelm the interior of the Arizona offensive line with size or strength, but his quickness with be an interesting matchup for a young group of interior linemen still putting the pieces together.
Joining Pela and Boyd in the trenches is 6-foot-4, 275-pound senior Blayne Anderson, who recorded 12 tackles and one sack as a junior from his defensive tackle position, as well as 6-foot-5, 245-pound junior Jarret Billbrey, who appeared in six games a season ago and posted eight tackles.
What the defensive line lacks in bulk will be made up for in agility and quickness, and we should know a fair amount about the future of the 2011 offensive line depending on their ability to physically dominate their smaller opponents.
Anchoring the defense from his linebacker position is the team's leader in tackles amongst returners, preseason All-Big Sky selection Scott McKeever. As a second team conference selection as a season ago, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior racked up 52 tackles and with 5.5 sacks shared the team lead in sacks with Bond.
After receiving a medical hardship waiver in 2009, McKeever is making the most of his opportunities and is an intelligent, agile linebacker with a nose for the football. He'll need to be accounted for in the run game if there is any hope for success throughout the game.
As experienced as McKeever is, middle linebacker Craig Frum is equally as inexperienced, as Saturday's game will be his first collegiate action after red-shirting in 2010. He'll need to get up to speed quickly and help McKeever and the rest of the defense to try to prevent the Arizona offense from having its way with the Lumberjacks.
Junior Ryan Reardon has bounced around a bit in his short collegiate career, but will likely start at linebacker after stops at Portland State and more recently, Glendale Community College. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior recorded 18 tackles in his lone season at Portland State, but did play a role on Glendale's Valley of the Sun Bowl championship team a season ago.
If Frum and Reardon struggle early on, it may just be the boost of confidence that Arizona's running game needs as it looks to find itself and establish an identity in hopes of making things easier in the passing game.
It could be a long day for the NAU secondary, as corners Randy Hale, Jr. (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) and redshirt-freshman Blake Bailey (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) have no starts, interceptions, and only 12 tackles between them.
Things get a little better at safety for the Lumberjacks, as they return the team's "Outstanding Sophomore" from a season ago, 6-foot-1, 190-pound Taylor Malenfant. The junior posted 24 stops and one interception in mostly backup duty a season ago, but will undoubtedly look to make an impression with his first opportunity at major playing time.
The lone bright spot and proven player in the secondary is Junior Taylor Julio, the team's interceptions leader in 2010. At 6-foot, 190-pounds, the junior ranked seventh on the team in tackles a season ago with 38, and while he may be small in stature, has shown that he has no problem with sticking his nose in the pile to help defend the run.
With so much inexperience at pivotal positions, it may prove next to impossible for Northern Arizona to slow down an offense as explosive as Arizona is expected to be; which could bode well for a UA team that will have to quickly build confidence before heading into a brutal stretch of games throughout September and into October.
Keys to the Game
1. Air it out- With three members of the NAU secondary with little or no experience, Nick Foles should have no problem finding open receivers all night long. He may not have to throw it 60 times, but the UA offense should take to the air early and often against the Lumberjacks.
2. Protect- Foles can only be ineffective if he's upright, so the offensive line will need to keep Isaac Bond and Scott McKeever out of his face and give him time to grow. It won't be a huge challenge for the UA offensive line, but if they play well it should help them to build confidence.
3. Distribute- Defenses all year long will be keying on Juron Criner until other receivers step up and show they can be consistent threats and worthy of attention. Foles can do himself a huge favor by getting the ball to receivers like David Douglas, David Roberts, Dan Buckner and others and let them show opponents that they too are worth paying attention to.
4. No turnovers- UA will does itself no favors by letting NAU hang around, and the easiest way for it to do that is to be careless with the football. If Arizona controls the ball, it should control the game.
5. Keep it simple- Although the two played nine months ago, Arizona has new wrinkles and elements to its offense that would be unwise to reveal to Oklahoma State during this weekend's game. The Wildcats should keep it as vanilla as possible on Saturday and keep all of the tricks they have up their sleeve for the re-match against