Scouting The Opponents: Northern Arizona

This is the ninth in a series of stories taking a look at Ole Miss' 2009 football foes. Today: The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks

At first glance an Ole Miss-Northern Arizona matchup might not have much appeal. But then you figure in the quarterback situation for the Lumberjacks.

The projected starter for NAU is former Rebel Michael Herrick, who spent a year and a fall semester in Oxford watching 22 football games but never participating in a contest. Ironically he spent that last season at UM alongside another game-watcher in Ole Miss' current starter Jevan Snead, sitting out his transfer year from Texas.

The two are scheduled to start for their respective current teams, if things work out as planned, on Nov. 7 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium/Hollingsworth Field.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Valencia, Calif., native is in his second season with the Lumberjacks. Last year he was the backup to starter Lance Kriesien for much of the season during NAU's 6-5 campaign.

In 2008, Herrick threw three touchdown passes but tossed six interceptions and finished the season with 1,043 passing yards and a 64.7 completion percentage. He was the only signal-caller to see any time with the first offensive unit this past spring.

In the spring game, Herrick finished 10-for-14 for 78 yards and had a 30-yard touchdown strike to running back Alex Henderson. The senior RB had nine carries for 44 yards and a rushing touchdown.

"Michael Herrick has been in our program for a year and a half and is a lot more comfortable with what we're doing now," NAU head coach Jerome Souers said. "He's an accurate thrower and makes good decisions."

Northern Arizona has added to its roster former Arizona State backup QB Chasen Stengel, who spent two seasons with the Sun Devils. The 6-0, 109-pounder from San Jacinto, Calif., could challenge Herrick for the top job. But it's clearly Herrick's for now as the team heads toward the season.

Souers, entering his 13th fall and the dean of Big Sky Conference head football coaches, hopes his team doesn't continue the slide of last season. NAU started 6-1 but lost its last four games for a 6-5 finish.

The Lumberjacks are picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Sky. They'll face Ole Miss and also Arizona from the Bowl Championship Series (formerly Division I-A). They open the season in Tucson against the Wildcats Sept. 12.

NAU has tried to shore up a defense that was porous last season, especially against the pass. The Lumberjacks were 116th out of 118 in the Football Championship Subdivision (old Division I-AA). NAU gave up more than 290 yards per game through the air.

Both cornerback spots are up for grabs. Senior Raphael Mack is in a battle with JUCO transfer Taelor Worrell for a starting spot, while JUCO transfer Davion Dumas and senior Conrad White are vying for the other position.

Also on defense, the Lumberjacks have dealt with major injuries. Linebacker Cody Dowd, the squad's only selection to the All-Big Sky preseason team, had two surgeries in the offseason on his right shoulder and is hopeful of being ready for the season. He had 32 tackles last season, three QB hurries, and three tackles for loss.

Defensive end Kyle Rath, a junior who was second on the team in sacks and third in tackles for loss, suffered an ACL injury the final week of spring drills and may be back late in the season.

Having those two important pieces of the defensive puzzle out for a while have made things more difficult for the NAU coaches. Those players are also considered two of the more vocal leaders of the Lumberjack defense.

"Not having Cody and Kyle is difficult, not only because they are good players but good leaders," said defensive coordinator Andy Thompson. "Every team in the country has some form of adversity where someone has to step up."

Souers said playing at Ole Miss will be a challenge for his team.

"We've seen the tape, and their win at Florida last year was phenomenal," he said. "Kids grow up watching the SEC and the Pac-10 and know they are top of the line. They're one of the best teams in the country. We know exactly how good they are and how well-coached they are. We'll do the best we can, but I don't think anyone is disillusioned with just how good they are."

Final Analysis:

This is the game that was scheduled late because no other Football Championship Series opponent could be found for Ole Miss. The Rebs went through a list of them, from Indiana to TCU and several other teams throughout the country, and nothing worked out.

Enter Northern Arizona. And Michael Herrick. Certainly having the former UM QB back for a game adds to the interest of this one.

This contest on paper is a mismatch, all things considered, but there are a lot of unknowns for the Rebels in this one. Still, if they line up and play well, they should secure a victory in this early November non-conference game.

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