Now, as he prepares for his second season opener, he feels more comfortable with the depth of his team, but still has to prepare for a powerful rushing attack from one of the in-state rivals.
The last time Northern Arizona was in Tucson to play the Wildcats, Lumberjack running back Zach Bauman was just a single yard shy of a 100-yard rushing game. He was only a sophomore at the time, but his 99 yards on 27 carries was only his fourth lowest total of the season as he went on to rush for 1,435 yards.
Last season, the Wildcats and Lumberjacks did not meet, but Bauman had an impressive season nonetheless. He rushed for 1,182 yards, making him the only player in NAU history to rush for 1,000+ yards in three consecutive seasons.
Arizona will attempt to keep Bauman from the history books on Friday night. The senior is currently sitting at 3,676 rushing yards in his career, just 118 yards behind the career mark in NAU history. Marcus King currently holds the record with 3,794 yards.
In addition to preparing for one of the top rushers in the FCS, Rodriguez and his staff will have to prepare for a quarterback that has no college game film. The Lumberjacks announced Monday that sophomore Kyren Poe would start under center.
Poe played in six games during his freshman season, but all at the receiver position. He caught just a single pass for five yards, but will be the one throwing passes this season.
The last time the sophomore was under center was in high school with Chandler Hamilton. During his senior year, he led his team to the state title, completing 64 percent of his passes for 1,914 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also rushed for 834 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Despite losing two-year starting quarterback Carery Gossart, the Lumberjacks return their leading receiver, Dejzon Walker. The passing attack was spread evenly throughout the receiving corps, but Walker led all players with 36 catches for 505 yards, scoring just a single touchdown.
NAU also returns Ify Umodu, who was second on the team in receiving, catching 35 balls for 481 yards and six touchdowns.
In addition, Bauman was actually third on NAU in receptions with 34 catches for 216 yards and a score.
Overall, Arizona will have to stop an offense that scored 31.6 points per game last season. The Lumberjacks had an average of 406.9 yards per game last season, which should be a realistic goal for Northern Arizona if Poe can control the offense as well as his predecessor.
NAU has a few intriguing options on offense, but Arizona is 11-1 all-time against the school from Flagstaff. There shouldn't be any reason to believe the Wildcats fall to 11-2 in the series.
Players to watch:
#7- QB, Kyren Poe: The freshman quarterback is taking his first snaps under center since playing in high school. He was a threat for Hamilton, but barely saw the field as a receiver in his first year in college. The position change is intriguing, but there is a reason that NAU Head Coach Jerome Souers named Poe the starter.
#34- RB, Zach Bauman: The senior is easily one of the biggest keys to the game for the Lumberjacks. If Bauman is at least slowed down by the Arizona defense, then NAU will have to rely on a questionable passing game.
#5- WR, Dezjon Walker: Arizona's passing defense was one of the worst in the Pac-12 and the country last season. If Poe can adjust to the pressure of starting his first game as quarterback on the road, Walker can be one of the biggest threats the Wildcats' secondary.
#8- WR, Ify Umodu: Did we mention that the Wildcats' secondary was bad last season? Well Umodu and Walker together will give Arizona a challenge. Umodu had just one fewer catch than Walker last season and can arguably be the better of the two receivers. He is a threat for big plays and showed it with his six touchdown catches last year.
#15- QB, Chase Cartwright: The junior quarterback is a player to watch if Poe does not play well. He is second on the depth chart and was the back-up signal caller last season. Cartwright is a capable quarterback, though his completion percentage leaves plenty to be desired.
Keys to the game:
1. Stop the run: Bauman is going to try to carry his team on his back. He bested Carey in their only previous matchup and will look to do it again on Friday. Arizona will have to key in on stopping Bauman and forcing the Lumberjacks to go to the air. It will be the first challenge for the upgraded Wildcats' defense.
2. Pressure Poe: Even if Arizona can successfully stop the run game, there is still the issue of the freshman quarterback playing in his first game under center. The Wildcats have the depth and speed to blitz and get to the quarterback. If the defensive line can get any sort of push, the defense should be in good shape to get in a few hits on Poe and shake him up.
3. Handle the nerves: The defense is much deeper than it was a year ago, though it is still not where it needs to be at. A few freshmen, including Scooby Wright, Devin Holiday, Jake Matthews, and more will be playing their first collegiate game. They will need to remain calm and focused throughout the game.