Experienced offense, defensive depth stand out for Jacks
By Travis Guy
Football. The sport that America loves, no matter the level.
Northern Arizona University (NAU) begins their season against PAC-12 team and in-state “rival” ASU.
This will be the 39th time the Jacks face the Sun Devils, with ASU holding a six game lead over NAU since 1915 (20–14–4). The Lumberjacks will be looking to break an eight-game skid against the Devils.
“Everybody knows who we’re playing. Everybody on this team, this program knows what this game, opportunity, represents,” said head coach Jerome Souers. “I don’t have any doubt at all that we have done everything we can to prepare at this point.”
NAU will be dealing with an ASU program in a bit of transition period this year. College programs routinely add and drop players each year, and the Sun Devils will unveil a new starting quarterback following Brock Osweiler’s departure to the NFL.
Along with new quarterback Taylor Kelly, who only saw action in one game last season, ASU hired a new head coach, after former coach Dennis Erickson was fired following his third losing season in the past four, picking up former University of Pittsburgh head coach Todd Graham. The strongest part of the ASU team will be its running back corps, with redshirt junior Cameron Marshall leading the pack.
“The style of offense they are going to run is a tempo. They are going to go no-huddle as fast as the officials will put the ball on the ground; they try to snap it and go,” Souers said. “It will be very important that our guys know and are on the same page when the ball is snapped. There is very little time to communicate in-between plays.”
The Lumberjacks will be led onto the field by senior quarterback Cary Grossart. Grossart made his first start for NAU in the 2011 season opener against Arizona. The Folsom, Calif. native ended the season by completing 197-for-299 passes with 16 touchdowns. Grossart ranked fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision with a passer rating of 156.0, the highest in the Big Sky Conference.
“I have a year under my belt of experience and for that setting, its really important to have been there and to take everything in,” Grossart said. “Going into this year, it’s gonna be out of my way and just be able to focus on our team, and our offense. The difference is I’m gonna be relaxed. I’m calm and the pressure, last year the pressure was on us, but I felt it was on me to, as a player I wanted to get my reputation out there and this year the pressures off. That’s the way you have to come into those games, you have nothing to lose.”
When Grossart was not improving his passer rating, he was handing the ball of to NAU’s most potent offensive weapon, junior running back Zach Bauman. Bauman, who was named to Walter Payton Award watch list for 2012, has accumulated 2,494 career-rushing yards and currently sits at fifth on the NAU all-time career rushing yards list.
“This group has a chance to be very special,” Souers said. “Granted, we haven’t played a game yet, so its hard to tell you exactly where we are but I know we are improved from this spring.
While Bauman is the go-to guy for running, he will be backed up by University of California-Berkley transfer senior Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson. As a Bear, DeBoskie-Johnson played in 23 games off the bench and totaled 321 rushing yards and two touchdowns rushing, averaging 5.1 yards per rush on 62 carries.
Going into Sun Devil Stadium, Grossart will have a few targets in the event that the running game stalls. Junior wide out Ify Umodo, Grossart’s No. 2 receiver last season behind alum Khalil Paden, ended last season with 50 catches for 667 yards and four touchdowns.
Umodo will be aided by sophomore Dejzon Walker, who recorded 328 yards after 22 catches and also tallied three touchdowns as a true freshman and junior transfer Nick Cole, who played a shortened season in 2011 due to injury, recorded one catch for 22 yards.
“I expect a lot out of the receivers. I expect a lot out of the offense in general,” Cole said. “We’ve been working since day one, preparing for ASU.”
While the offense has proven returners, the defense will be looking to replace senior leadership that was lost after graduation. The defensive line will have to try and replace three starters in Isaac Bond, Dan Pela and Blayne Anderson.
Head coach Jerome Souers took the steps to rebuild the team’s depth by recruiting Boise State transfer Justin Jungblut and looking to junior defensive linemen Tim Wilkinson and senior Jarret Bilbrey to take over in the leadership roles on the team.
“Bilbrey and Wilkinson are the returners . . . but Jungblut is about as talented a tackle as we’ve had in sometime,” Souers said. “Putting him alongside Wilkinson makes us pretty stout in the middle, for our level.”
Wilkinson returns for the Lumberjacks following a sophomore season in which he was named All-Big Sky Honorable Mention. The Las Vegas native made 30 tackles through 10 games, including six tackles for loss, finishing tied for second on the team in tackles for loss with Anderson. Bilbrey notched 32 tackles, including five sacks (second on the team) in 2011 and 42 tackles through his career at NAU.
“This is something I have been waiting for. It’s a position that I have been waiting for my whole life. I think that I have it within me to be a good leader and that’s something I’ve always wanted,” Bilbrey said. “Now I get the chance to do that and I’m excited for this game, this team. I think we have a championship team.”
Senior free safety Taylor Malenfant and junior cornerback Anders Battle will be heading up the secondary. Malenfant got his hands in front of kicks twice and was fourth on the team with 40 tackles. Battle tallied 35 tackles with one sack and one interception.
“We are two deep on defense. We’re to the point right now where you keep practicing you don’t get better,” Souers said. “We need to play to determine how far the development truly is.”
The implications of a win for the Jacks against their PAC-12 foe are not lost on the team.
“Its tough to put into words the excitement and validation it would bring to our team and the work we’ve put in throughout summer and training camp,” Grossart said. “It would be awesome. I’m trying to think of a word right now, but it would be, it would make all the work you’ve done count and it would bring something new to this university and to this football program.”