#11 Northern Arizona 2018 FCS Football Preview

Northern Arizona Lumberjacks
Overall Rank: #11
#2 Big Sky
 Northern Arizona Logo
Northern Arizona returned to the FCS Playoffs in 2017 thanks to a strong 6-2 showing in Big Sky Conference play. The return to the playoffs was a quick one for Northern Arizona as they lost to the Toreros 41-10 in the first round. However, with the return of 19 starters the outlook for the 2018 season is very bright and, if the Lumberjacks can hold serve at home in key games, then eight wins and a return trip to the FCS playoffs is very likely.
2017 Record: 7-5, 6-2
2017 Postseason: FCS Playoffs
Coach: Jerome Souers (119-108 at Northern Arizona, 119-108 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Aaron Pflugrad
Defensive Coordinator: Andy Thompson
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Cory Young, RB, 784 yards
Passing: Case Cookus, QB, 3,413 yards
Receiving: Chancellor Brewington, WR, 396 yards
Tackles: Kam’ron Johnson, S, 81
Sacks: Carson Taylor, DL, 2.0
Interceptions: Kam’ron Johnson, S, 4
Other Key Returnees: RB Joe Logan, TE Jonathan Baldwin, S Wes Sutton, LB Jake Casteel, CB Maurice Davison, CB Kahlil Dorsey, LB Taylor Powell, K Griffin Roehler, P DJ Arnson, DL Hamilton To’o, WR Emmanuel Butler, DL Sione Talakai, DE Chauntez Thomas
Key Losses: WR Elijah Marks, LB Byron Evans
Case Cookus is back at quarterback to lead an offensive unit that can throw the ball around as well as anyone in FCS football. Cookus completed 58 percent of his passes last season while throwing for 3,413 yards and 22 touchdown passes. The other key to Cookus being so successful in 2017 was the limiting of interceptions to just six. Cory Young and Joe Logan are a running back tandem that was steady last season, averaging 5.6 and 4.8 yards per carry, respectively. It will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Aaron Pflugrad calls more runs for these two to take pressure off the pass blocking for the offensive line. The return of a healthy Emmanuel Butler will lessen the blow of losing Elijah Marks to graduation at the wide receiver position. Chancellor Brewington will most likely become the number two receiver in 2018. Brewington caught 31 passes for 396 yards and two touchdowns in 2017. Jonathan Baldwin is a solid pass catching tight end who caught four touchdown passes in 2017.
The inability to consistently stop the run and get off the field on third down cost the Lumberjacks in the playoffs. San Diego rushed for 211 yards and converted 9 of 18 times on third down. Kam’ron Johnson is the top returning playmaker at safety and it will be up to him to lead the Northern Arizona defense in 2018. Johnson collected 81 tackles and intercepted four passes last season and will post similar numbers in 2018 if he stays healthy. Wes Sutton is back at the other safety spot and he is another solid playmaker as Sutton had eight tackles for loss and two interceptions in 2017. Carson Taylor, Hamilton To’o, Chauntez Thomas, and Sione Talakai all return along the defensive front and their improvement will dictate how far the Lumberjacks will progress in 2018 on defense. Northern Arizona did not get enough pressure on the quarterback last season, averaging only 1.58 sacks per game.
The Bottom Line:
A trip to El Paso to play UTEP will start off the 2018 season for the Lumberjacks. This is a very winnable game for Northern Arizona as the Miners are coming off an 0-12 season in 2017. Eastern Washington will visit for the home opener in what will be a nonleague game that doesn’t count in the Big Sky standings. The Eagles are the conference favorite and are loaded offensively as always. However, the Lumberjacks have won two of the last three meetings and the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome will be amped up for Eastern Washington. Southern Utah and Weber State are home games on September 22nd and October 6th that could be swing games in Northern Arizona’s quest to get to the FCS playoffs. If the Lumberjacks can survive the first half of the season with two losses or less, then they should finish strong as the second half of the schedule is more forgiving. Look for about an eight-win season and another berth in the FCS playoffs in 2018 for Northern Arizona.
Projected Postseason: FCS Playoffs
2017 Team Stats
Rushing Offense: 129.8 (82nd in nation, 12th in conference)
Passing Offense: 301.0 (11, 4)
Total Offense: 430.8 (21, 7)
Scoring Offense: 30.3 (29, 7)
Rushing Defense: 207.9 (106, 10)
Pass Defense: 174.3 (19, 1)
Total Defense: 382.2 (74, 2)
Scoring Defense: 29.7 (93, 5)
Turnover Margin: 0.08 (59, 5)
Sacks: 1.58 (92, 10)
Sacks Allowed: 2.67 (95, 11)