NAU football begins 2016 favored to win the Big Sky


Over the years, Jerome Souers has become the patriarch of college football in Arizona.  The head coach at Northern Arizona University is about to begin his 19th season directing the FCS program in Flagstaff.

He’s held that job longer than any other football coach in the school’s history.

During the last 18 years, the other two Division I football programs in the state have combined to churn through six head coaches, three at Arizona State and three at University of Arizona.  The current head coaches, Todd Graham at ASU and Rich Rodriguez at UofA, are both entering their fifth season.

Souers, who was the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year in 1999, has won his share of games; he’s just the second coach in the Big Sky to hit the 100-win mark during his time coaching in the league.  He has fielded some good teams through the years, but his last conference title was 13 years ago.

That may be about to change.  The ‘Jacks were picked in the media and the coaches’ polls to win it all this year.

Last season the Lumberjacks had a shot at a share of the Big Sky title, but lost their final game to No. 18 Southern Utah in the final seconds of the final game.  They ended the 2015 season with a 7-4 record and in a tie for third place in the conference.

That group beat their opponents in passing yards, scoring, and total offense.  They averaged 471 yards of total offense, 303 of those through the air.

There will be six starters returning on offense and five more on defense.

This year’s squad will return 93.5 percent of its passing yards and 76.3 percent of its total offense.

The driving forces in that offense that will be back this season include sophomore quarterback Case Cookus, who broke an FCS passing record, and junior wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, who earned his place in the record books by smashing the single-season receiving yards record.

Cookus set a new FCS freshman record with 37 touchdown passes and had five games where he threw for 200 or more yards, another three games with 300 yards, and one game of 400 yards.  He was named the FCS STATS National Freshman of the Year.

Butler, from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, collected 1,208 yards in receptions.

That returning fire power had a lot to do with the ‘Jacks earning a No. 13 ranking by The Sporting News in the latest FCS pre-season poll.  They were also selected No. 15 by Lindy’s Sports and No. 24 by Athlon Sports.

Cookus and Butler were named to the pre-season All-Big Sky team, along with senior left tackle Jacob Julian and junior center Blake Porter.

Something that didn’t show up in last season’s stats was the team’s ability to bounce back from crushing defeat.  In the third game of the season, after the ‘Jacks won their first two games, the Arizona Wildcats hung a 64-point loss on them.

That’s the price you sometimes have to pay when scheduling a game with a team well above your pay grade, in this case a Pac-12 power.  The $400,000 paid to the athletic department didn’t seem like enough compensation for the embarrassment of a 77-13 rout that was televised across the country.

The good news: Arizona isn’t on this year’s schedule.

The bad news: NAU opens the 2016 schedule in Tempe against Arizona State.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)