This will be Zach Bauman‘s final year in the familiar Navy-and-gold uniform he has worn in setting school football records at Northern Arizona University that may stand for a long time to come.
And he will be getting a lot of support on the field from friends – and even former foes – as he attempts to set still more records, and possibly earn college football’s coveted Walter Payton Award, given each year to the most outstanding offensive player in Division I. Bauman was named to the awards watch list for a second straight season last month, along with seven other running backs.
He will be surrounded this season by teammates who, like himself, played at Arizona high schools. Nearly half of this year’s roster is home-grown talent, a point of pride with head coach Jerome Souers, who is beginning his 16th season on the Lumberjack sidelines.
Bauman, a running back from Hamilton High School in Chandler, has already become the first player in NAU history to run for 1,000 or more yards in three consecutive seasons. He has amassed 3,676 rushing yards thus far, and has 4,552 all-purpose yards to put him in third place on the career list in that category.
Barring an injury, the 5’10”, 200-pound speedster is a lock to pick up the 119 yards in the first few games that he needs to break the school career rushing record.
During his first two years in Flagstaff, Bauman struggled on some mediocre teams that went 6-5 and 4-7. But last season the Lumberjacks caught fire and finished the season 8-3, narrowly missing making it into the football Championship Series (FCS) playoffs.
The Jacks finished the 2012 campaign with a No. 20 national ranking, and begin this season ranked anywhere from No. 16 to No. 18, depending on which rating service is used. And they return nine players on both sides of the ball.
NAU led all teams in the Big Sky Conference with six pre-season all-conference picks. Despite that, the Jacks were picked by both media and coaches to finish fifth in the conference.
A primary reason for that middle-of-the-pack prediction is that Souers has to replace Cary Grossart, his two-year starter at quarterback who graduated in the spring. Two of the four signal-callers on the roster appear to have the inside track for the starting job. Both hail from Arizona.
So Bauman will probably get his hand-offs from either Chase Cartwright, a 6’3″ junior from Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, or Kyren Poe, a former high school teammate at Hamilton High who will be a redshirt sophomore this season.
Cartwright was thrown into the fire early last season when he had to replace Grossart in the first game of the season against Arizona State. Cartwright was impressive in three starts before also retiring to the sidelines with an injury. Poe made his mark in the spring practice when he threw for 153 yards on 16-of-25 passing.
When Bauman needs a breather, he can count on Casey Jahn from Northwest Christian High School in Phoenix. The sophomore running back was there for him last year, too, rushing for 306 yards on 41 carries, scoring four touchdowns as a true freshman.
“I think one of our biggest goals this season is to help Zach get the Walter Payton Award,” says Jahn. “This is his year to win it. We’re going to push him in practice, and I will be there to give him a rest when he needs it.”
And then there is a corps of 12 wide receivers to take some of the pressure off the running game, led by Deizon Walker from Basha High School in Chandler. The three top receivers from last year, which included Nick Cole and Ify Umodu, return for 2013. Walker led the group, which combined for 1,335 yards and 12 touchdowns, with 505 yards.
There will also be help on the other side of the ball, as cornerback Anders Battle and defensive back Lucky Dozier return for their final seasons. Both were pre-season first-team All-American selections.
Andy Wilder, the squad’s senior punter/kicker was also named to the first team.
Oh yeah, two of the three are also local products, Battle from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix and Wilder from Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale.
But they’re all teammates again this year as they pull together one last time to try and get the Jacks into the playoffs.
And, if they don’t let the University of Arizona knock them off track in next week’s season opener, they’re on a good course that just might get them there this time.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)