#17 Northern Arizona FCS Football 2016 Preview

Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
Overall Rank: #17
#3 Big Sky
After a relatively tough start, Northern Arizona looked ready to make the playoffs last season. The Lumberjacks lost early games against Arizona, Montana and UC Davis. That UC Davis loss really hurt in retrospect. But after that disappointing game, NAU won their next four games, including a 52-30 pounding of top five ranked Eastern Washington. And then came a trip to Southern Utah with everything on the line. Win that game and NAU would be in the playoffs, lose and they would be out. Unfortunately for the Lumberjacks, they came up on the losing end of a 49-41 score. But the expectations are higher this year and NAU should reach the playoffs and perhaps make a little run once they get there.
2015 Record: 7-4, 5-3
2015 Postseason: None
Coach: Jerome Souers (107-97 at Northern Arizona, 107-97 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Tim Plough
Defensive Coordinator: Andy Thompson
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Corbin Jountti, RB, 378 yards
Passing: Case Cookus, QB, 3,117 yards
Receiving: Emmanuel Butler, WR, 1,208 yards
Tackles: Jake Thomas, LB, 69
Sacks: Jake Thomas, LB, 4.5
Interceptions: LeAndre Vaughn, S, 2
Other Key Returnees: WR Elijah Marks, OL Jacob Julian, OL Eric Rodriguez, OL Blake Porter, LB Jake Casteel
Key Losses: RB Casey Jahn, WR Dejzon Walker, TE RJ Rickert, S Eddie Horn, LB Josh Bamrick, CB Marcus Alford, DL Zach McDonnell, K/P Ryan Hawkins
This team is all about the offense. Quarterback Case Cookus stepped into a starting job as a freshman and threw for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns. That is impressive for a freshman, but what is even more impressive is the fact that he completed 69.0 percent of his passes and threw just five interceptions. With a year of experience under his belt, even bigger and better things are expected from Cookus. The return of Emmanuel Butler will make it much easier for Cookus to live up to his suddenly lofty expectations. Butler caught 64 passes for 1,208 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged nearly 19 yards per catch and there may not be a better big play receiver in all of the FCS. Elijah Marks is a solid receiver too, but Dejzon Walker, Alex Holmes and tight end RJ Rickert need to be replaced. The loss of Rickert especially could be tough for NAU to deal with this season. The running game was surprisingly decent in 2015 despite the pass heavy offense. Casey Jahn will need to be replaced after rushing for 1,035 yards and seven scores. Corbin Jountti is the next in line after rushing for 378 yards and six touchdowns on 78 carries as a sophomore. With a strong and experienced offensive line and an opposing defense that has to think about the pass, expect the ground game to be successful again in 2016.
The defense was not to blame for all of the losses, but it is easy to blame them for that huge loss to Southern Utah. On the whole, the unit was solid against the run, but terrible against the pass. And in the Big Sky, you have to be able to contain the passing game to compete for a championship. The defense failed to create too many turnovers either and that could be an even bigger issue this year. Safety Eddie Horn and cornerback Marcus Alford accounted for seven of the team’s ten interceptions and they have to be replaced. Those two were also the steadying forces in a shaky secondary. Safety LeAndre Vaughn will have to turn into the new leader and hope the holes around him can be filled in effectively. Jake Thomas and Jake Casteel are the leaders of the front seven and both can get to the quarterback. As long as NAU keeps getting pressure on the quarterback, the secondary cannot be much worse than they were last year, even without Horn and Alford.
The Bottom Line:
Northern Arizona has plenty of talent and Coach Jerome Souers has plenty of depth in most positions, but the schedule is pretty tough. Northern Arizona has to play Eastern Washington, Montana, Weber State and North Dakota. The only top team not on the schedule is Portland State. With that schedule seven wins could be enough, but it was not last year and reaching eight wins is the goal. This team is good enough to do it, but they have to hold serve at home against teams like Eastern Washington and Montana.
Projected Postseason: FCS Playoffs
2015 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 167.5 (52nd in nation, 6th in conference)
Passing Offense: 303.2 (8, 3)
Total Offense: 470.7 (11, 4)
Scoring Offense: 39.3 (7, 2)
Rushing Defense: 180.0 (73, 5)
Pass Defense: 294.4 (121, 13)
Total Defense: 474.4 (116, 11)
Scoring Defense: 34.8 (102, 10)
Turnover Margin: -0.18 (75, 6)
Sacks: 2.45 (28, 3)
Sacks Allowed: 2.73 (100, 13)
Madness 2016 Recruit Rankings:
#24 Aaron Manning
#130 Steven Bailey