Jerome Souers is entering his 20th year as the head coach at Northern Arizona. He has kept the program competitive against the big boys of the Big Sky during that time, but he has only won one conference title.
The Lumberjacks have a passing attack that can rival any team in the FCS, but the primary questions hover around a defense that will be very inexperienced this season.
2016 Northern Arizona Football Season In Review
An injury to its most important player derailed Northern Arizona’s 2016 campaign. The Lumberjacks were a trendy pick to win the Big Sky with 2015 National Freshman of the Year Case Cookus back under center, but then disaster struck.
After a 1-2 start, Northern Arizona hosted the preseason favorites to win the conference, Eastern Washington. The Lumberjacks felt they had a puncher’s chance to win a shootout against the Eagles because of Cookus. They hung in there for three quarters, but then he injured his shoulder and didn’t play another snap the rest of the season as the team limped to a 5-6 mark.
Even without Cookus, Emmanuel Butler still had a productive season as the team’s primary receiving target. He tallied his second straight 1,000-yard campaign and was named all-conference once again. Butler ended the season with a bang, putting up three consecutive 100-yard games.
The defense was a major issue for Northern Arizona, though. Teams were able to move the ball on the Lumberjacks at will, and they couldn’t outgun opponents without Cookus. They allowed 413.1 yards per game, putting them in the bottom third in total defense in the country.
2017 Northern Arizona Football Season Preview
Cookus will be one of the best quarterbacks in the country this season. In 15 games at Northern Arizona, he has completed over 68 percent of his passes with a 50-to-6 touchdown to interception ratio. He stretches the field with his throws as well, averaging 9.8 yards per attempt. He is already getting looks from NFL teams and will torch the defenses in the Big Sky.
Butler is back for another season, too, and he could be one of the top five receivers at the FCS level. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he is too big of a body for most defensive backs to handle, but he also possesses freakish speed. Butler was a unanimous selection for the Big Sky’s All-Preseason Team on Monday and will frustrate defensive coordinators in 2017.
Last year’s top rusher is returning to the fold, too. Joe Logan averaged 6.3 yards per carry, but he missed three of the team’s first four games in 2016. He was shut down by most of the conference’s best defenses, but should find more success now that defenses respect the pass more with Cookus back.
Once again, the glaring problem is the defense. Northern Arizona only has three starters from last year returning to that unit, so expect a lot of shootouts. If the Lumberjacks are going to contend for the Big Sky, Cookus needs to have some monster performances.
2017 Northern Arizona Football Schedule
September 2: Northern Arizona at Arizona
September 9: Northern Arizona vs. Western Illinois
September 23: Northern Arizona at Cal Poly
September 30: Northern Arizona vs. Northern Colorado
October 7: Northern Arizona vs. Illinois State
October 14: Northern Arizona at Portland State
October 21: Northern Arizona vs. UC Davis
October 28: Northern Arizona vs. Sacramento State
November 4: Northern Arizona at Montana
November 11: Northern Arizona vs. Montana State
November 18: Northern Arizona at Southern Utah
FCS Pick ‘Em Games To Watch
Northern Arizona decided to not schedule any cupcakes for its non-conference schedule. The Lumberjacks will take on FBS foe Arizona and two burgeoning football programs in Western Illinois and Illinois State. Those games should serve as a measuring stick of what the Lumberjacks are capable of doing this season.
They have without question the best conference schedule of any team in the Big Sky. Northern Arizona dodges the three teams most believe have the best chance to win the conference in Weber State, Eastern Washington and North Dakota.
That puts extra emphasis on the Lumberjacks’ finale against Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds have won three straight over Northern Arizona in the Grand Canyon Rivalry and host this year’s edition. Northern Arizona has an easier schedule in the lead-up to the rivalry, so keep that in mind for your FCS Pick ‘Em Contests.