Arizona will host Northern Arizona on Saturday. In preparation for that match-up, Wildcat Authority caught up with Cody Bashore from the Arizona Daily Sun to ask a few questions about the Lumberjacks. Here's what he had to say:
Wildcat Authority: Arizona and NAU haven’t matched up since 2013 and the Wildcats have had many changes in personnel and modifications to schemes. What are the biggest changes for the Lumberjacks in the past two seasons?
Cody Bashore: Nearly everything. Looking back to the 2013 game, only running back Casey Jahn had any impact offensively. NAU’s offensive style is now a faster-paced, no huddle spread that is trying to utilize its downfield weapons under first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tim Plough. Two years ago, Plough was in his first year with the program as the wide receivers coach and Rich Scangarello ran a more pro-style offense through running back Zach Bauman.
Defensively, the team remains under Andy Thompson and has become a bit deeper than it was two years ago. Thanks to its recent success, NAU has seen its freshmen classes become a little more impactful in the past few years. Defensive end Zach McDonnell was the only player who made a tackle that is still on the roster. The Lumberjacks had most of their defense turnover in the past two years and Marcus Alford, who was the team’s third cornerback in that game, is now an All-Big Sky First Team honoree and preseason FCS All-American selection.
WA: Northern Arizona looked solid in the season opening win at Stephen F. Austin and then dominated New Mexico Highlands with some impressive offensive numbers. Where are the main factors that go into the offensive success so far?
CB: The New Mexico Highlands game is probably not much of a surprise, given the school’s standing in Division II. However, the season opening win at Stephen F. Austin stood as a success for the rebuilt offense and was aided by Case Cookus’ quick rise for the Lumberjacks. The plan was originally to have Connor Brewer running this offense, but that changed with his decision to head to Virginia in June. Cookus was brought in a week later and has by all accounts managed to pick up the offense very quickly. Stephen F. Austin had to go into that game essentially blind, with little film on Cookus or the offense to go off of.
Additionally, the team has built up a wide receiver core to execute the fast-paced game plan it created. Sophomore Emmanuel Butler has been the star so far, with nine catches for 270 yards and four touchdowns. Butler took advantage of the one-on-one matchups Stephen F. Austin gave him throughout the season opener, beating them with his size and strong hands. The team was excited to get him in last year, but has actually utilized his size, 6-foot-3, this year. However, both Alex Holmes in the slot and Dejzon Walker outside have led the team in receiving categories during their careers. With Kendyl Taylor’s transfer in from Washington and both Elijah Marks and Marc Cooper adding depth, the team is pretty happy with any combination of the six receivers it splits outside.
WA: Quarterback Case Cookus is having quite the start to his career with five touchdowns and a 71-percent completion percentage in his first two games. How has he been able to adapt to the early pressure of being a starting quarterback as a true freshman?
CB: Cookus’ back story might help a little bit, as he is really only a true freshman in name only. Cookus grayshirted at Ventura College in California last year and turns 20 on Oct. 6, so he isn’t quite the 17-year-old former high school quarterback that some people might assume when they see true freshman listed on the roster. Former Sacramento State head coach Steve Mooshagian, who NAU head coach Jerome Souers knows from their days together in the Big Sky, was coaching Cookus at Ventura.
None of that should belittle the work Cookus has put in to get where he is. With Jordan Perry ineligible to start the season, Cookus stepped in and has grabbed hold of the starting job. He has avoided mistakes, which the Lumberjacks stressed as a necessity after having turnover issues at the position in the past. NAU hasn’t really thrown out anything too advanced yet, but Cookus and Butler have quickly proven they have a solid understanding of each other. His athleticism has been pretty clear early on, with NAU running him on some plays. He has seven carries of at least seven yards in the first two games. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that NAU’s line has kept him protected for the first two weeks, allowing just one sack in the opener at Stephen F. Austin.
WA: While Northern Arizona was able to hold New Mexico Highlands to just five points last week, the Arizona offense is a very different animal. How do you see the Lumberjacks trying to slow down the Wildcats’ weapons?
CB: Honestly, I am not sure they can. The defense did struggle at the end of the Stephen F. Austin game, giving up a pair of scores in the fourth quarter that cut the lead from 34-14 to 34-28. NAU had a lot of trouble stopping the running game last year and has basically an all new middle to its defense. However, it hasn’t really been challenged through the first two weeks of the season. Stephen F. Austin quarterback Zach Conque broke off a few runs in the opener, but NAU has allowed just 208 yards on the ground in the first two games. I’m sure the staff took notice of Nick Wilson’s 194 yards against Nevada last week and knows that will be the first true test.
In the passing game, NAU will probably be comfortable allowing Alford to face a challenge on one side of the field. Across from him, Arizona might look to challenge one of NAU’s younger corners. Sophomore Wes Sutton has started the first two games, with redshirt freshman Cole Sterns (from Sahuaro) and true freshman Maurice Davison rotating in. With how little game experience those three have, I would imagine that might be a spot to keep an eye on. NAU has generated some solid pressure up front, with eight sacks in two games after just 21 last year. I’d imagine that needs to continue from both the line and linebackers to protect the younger parts of the secondary.
WA: The past few meetings haven’t been very close, but there have been a few exciting players for both teams in the match-ups. Who are the top offensive and defensive players to keep an eye out for on the NAU side of the ball?
CB: With Cookus and Butler adequately covered, I think Kendyl Taylor might be a player to look out for against Arizona. While it was just one long catch last season and some carries back in 2012, he had some success against Arizona when he played at Washington. He has been a small part of the offense early on for NAU, but he at least was on the field against the Wildcats in last year’s near upset in Tucson. He only had one carry for a yard against Stephen F. Austin, but NAU has some plans to use him out of the backfield this year.
Defensively, I’ll go with a similar answer. Zach McDonnell is the lone defender who has played against Arizona and is coming off of a great game against New Mexico Highlands. He had two sacks, a hurry and a pass breakup last week against the Cowboys. The senior was banged up off and on last year and finished the season with just one sack in eight games played. Additionally, Jake Casteel might be a name to keep an eye on. He is the son of Arizona defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jeff Casteel. Jake redshirted last year and is in the rotation at linebacker. Through two games, he has just three tackles and a sack, but he might be a fun one to look for.