Playoffs or bust? NAU football has sights set on FCS Playoffs heading into season
By Devontae Browne
The NAU football team is on the road to redemption, and its goals include a winning season with aspirations of making it into the playoffs, something that has not been done since 2003. Despite a 4–7 record overall, and 3–5 in Big Sky Conference play, the team expects to play better than what the previous year’s record indicated.
“We expect to win. Our goal is to play for a conference championship every year, which will get us into the playoffs,” head coach Jerome Souers said. “The Big Sky Conference is very competitive from top to bottom. There are no ‘easy’ win games.”
Despite a losing record, NAU football played well down the stretch of the season, losing close games at Montana, 28–24, Weber State, 34–31, and Southern Utah, 27–24. Souers believes that if the Jacks were able to put up a few more points or stop the other schools from scoring, the Lumberjacks would have finished the season with a winning record and possible shot at the Big Sky Championship. If NAU hopes to make it to the playoffs, these close games need to swing in its favor. Coming up on the conclusion of training camp and the beginning of the season, the Jacks believe they have found solutions to their mistakes following last season’s shortcomings.
“We need to focus [and] we have to convert key drives. Taking field goals instead of punts and touchdowns instead of field goals in any of those games [gives us the win],” Souers said. “We take what the defense gives us. Instead of being one drive better, we have to be two drives better. We have to have balance on both sides of the ball and that will make a vast difference in the point margins.”
At the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season, the Jacks generated 20 sacks, five interceptions and only converted third-downs 43 percent of the time in conference play. NAU ranked seventh in the Big Sky in total penalties with 78 through 11 games, totaling 770 yards, which was largely due to false starts. The Lumberjacks also lost 11 fumbles compared to the six they recovered. Going into the offseason and summer training camp, there was some work for the Lumberjacks to get done.
“We’ve run out time, [so] the time is now,” senior quarterback Cary Grossart said. “There is a strong sense of urgency. There’s no one more confident in this team than me that we are ready to get more wins. We’re stopping ourselves, ultimately with our own mistakes. We want to win the Big Sky and see if we can do damage in the playoffs.”
With Grossart’s play at quarterback posting a top completion percentage of 65.9 percent in the Big Sky and a dominating run game that rushed for over 1,800 yards behind junior running back Zach Bauman (who rushed for 1,435 of the 1,831 total rushing yards), the biggest question of the offense is the wide receiver corps.
“We have a lot of depth, and we have a lot of returning guys from last years’ team,” junior wide receiver Ify Umodu said. “Guys here can’t wait to get to work and showcase their respective talents in the passing game or run game. Guys know their roles, while knowing the routes they have to run properly, and how to read the defensive coverage. As far as I’m concerned, we are a threat to any opposing defense.”
The players know that discipline, practice, preparation, and perfection make for a better team. With this team’s offensive production comes protection and continuity from the offensive line up front.
“Everyone on the O-line can play every position. We have great chemistry,” senior right tackle Trey Gilleo said. “If we can dominate up front, that will open up play-action pass and only create more opportunities for our dominant run game.”
The team has a developed sense of camaraderie due to the time they spend on and off the field. The NAU football defense has potential to wreak havoc on opposing offenses and continue to build upon their experience last year.
As an old football proverb goes: offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.
“Our defense especially has a chip on their shoulder. The motivation to be successful has shown itself through camp, which bodes well for us,” Souers said. “We have guys returning, we recruited quality talent and our defense as a whole has immense depth at every position, whether it be D-line, corner, safety or linebacker.”
The players on this team know they will all have their moment, whether in practice or in-games, to prove why there are here. The competitive nature of this squad at every position makes them work that much harder because no one wants to give up their role as a starter or as an impact player in key situations.
“If you’re a starter, you have to hold your job. If you can’t play up to the standard we need, there’s another guy capable behind you,” Souers said. “That competitive nature adds more effective work ethic at practice and at every position.”