Souers coached his squad to a 6-5 record a season ago, including a 4-4 mark in Big Sky play, which was good enough for sixth in the conference. NAU's head coach may be pleased to match last season's effort in 2011, as he is forced to replace 14 starters from last year's team, including his quarterback, three offensive linemen, leading receiver and top two tacklers.
The Lumberjacks have been slated fifth by the coaches and sixth by the media amongst the nine teams in the Big Sky for the upcoming season, so it's clear that NAU has some work to do if it wants to be successful in 2011.
The last time Northern Arizona played in Tucson was in 2009, when UA handled the Lumberjacks 34-17 in week two of the season behind 207 yards rushing from Nic Grigsby. Needless to say, many of the players who made the trip two years ago have since moved on from the program, and it may be difficult once again for NAU to slow the Wildcats offensively.
Players to watch:
#34- RB, Zach Bauman- As a true freshman, the preseason All Big Sky selection set a school freshman record with 1059 yards rushing. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound bruiser found the end zone 16 times as well on his way to a second-team conference distinction a year ago. He'll be the focal point of the NAU offense from the get go, and UA will likely focus the majority of its efforts on stopping him and forcing the inexperienced NAU quarterbacks to beat it.
#2- WR, Austin Shanks- Another preseason All-Big Sky selection for the Lumberjacks, what Shanks lacks in size he makes up for in production. At 5-foot-8, 175-pounds, the senior recorded 65 catches for 613 yards and three scores last season and will be the favorite target of NAU's quarterbacks. He saw action in the game two years ago and recorded just one catch for seven yards, and will look to improve on that stat if he gets the opportunity.
#45- FB, Vinnie Paciulli- Despite never appearing in a game at the position, the 6-foot-1, 230 pound senior is the Big Sky's preseason first-team fullback. After switching from guard to fullback a season ago, Paciulli is exactly what Bauman needs clearing the way for him against UA, as he is a bruiser, whose new quickness combines with his existing blocking ability for a potentially effective fullback. He likely won't carry the ball, but if Bauman breaks off some big runs, Paciulli is likely the reason why.
#96- DE, Isaac Bond- With 16 sacks, Bond ranks second in NAU history and will look to break the record as a senior. An unanimous Big Sky preseason selection this season, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end was tied for the team lead in sacks a season ago after he recorded 8.5 sacks as a sophomore. Bond has the size and quickness to get to the quarterback, and he'll have to if NAU has any chance at slowing the Arizona passing attack.
#46- LB, Scott McKeever- The leadership role of the defensive likely falls to McKeever who, with 52 tackles as a junior, is the team's leading returner in tackles. He showed the ability to get to the quarterback last season with 5.5 sacks of his own, and also has the toughness to stand his ground in the run game. He'll have to be all over the field helping out two linebackers who have zero combined starts between them. Look for his name to be called early and often throughout the contest for the Lumberjacks.
#3- S, Taylor Julio- The 6-foot, 190-pound senior recorded two interceptions a season ago, and he'll need to be around the ball all night if NAU is going to avoid being shredded. The secondary for the Lumberjacks is very inexperienced, with Julio the only starter with any meaningful experience throughout his career. Look for Northern Arizona to get Julio as involved as they can in both run and pass defense, and to try to give its senior safety the best chance it can to make as many plays as he can.
Keys to the Game
1. Air it out- With all of the inexperience in the NAU secondary, Nick Foles should have no problem completing passes early and often all over the field. Coach Stoops may not have to show his willingness to live up to his "60 passes per game" in week one, but he should look to exploit the Lumberjacks in the secondary.
2. Stop the run- Zach Bauman is the focal point of the NAU offense, and beyond him, there isn't much going for the Lumberjacks offensively. Stopping Bauman should be priority one for the Wildcats on defense, as they should force the inexperienced Northern Arizona quarterbacks to have to air it out to have a chance to score.
3. Apply pressure- Mohammed Usman and C.J. Parish have looked great throughout camp, but how will that translate to game action? A sack or two from each would give them the confidence to take their games to another level next week in Stillwater.
4. Re-establish an identity- The last time the Wildcats took the field, they got smacked by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl and are currently riding a five-game losing streak. UA needs to get back in the win column and find what its strengths and weaknesses will be heading into an incredibly tough stretch of games.
5. Focus- As easy as it is to overlook NAU, anything can happen in this game. If the Wildcats don't give the Lumberjacks their due respect, this game could be much closer than expected and could have the opposite of the intended effect of building confidence and getting in the win column.