When you open your football schedule against a team that you regularly beat by four to five touchdowns, it takes a little marketing creativity to get the fan base enthused enough to fill up the stadium.
The folks at University of Arizona are using an old stand-by this season. Fans who show up for Saturday’s opener against the Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks will get a chance to win a Rob Gronkowski bobblehead doll.
“Gronk” was a huge fan favorite during his playing days in Tucson as a tight end, 2007-09, and went on to become an even bigger phenomenon in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.
But not everybody will get a doll. Abut 10,000 have been ordered for the promotion, which will be distributed during the third quarter through a voucher system. Season ticket holders have received their vouchers through the mail and others can get them at the gate if they get there early enough. The vouchers are color coded, with the winning color to be announced on the video board.
The Lumberjacks, who play D-I as an FCS program, show up on the Cats’ schedule every other year. The last time was 2015, when Arizona turned very inhospitable by sending them back up the hill to Flagstaff nursing a 77-13 beat-down. In 2013, it was a 35-0 blowout, and a 41-10 romp in 2011. You get the idea…
This year, the ‘Jacks are coming off a disappointing 5-6 finish in 2016, but return starting quarterback Case Cookus, who missed the final seven games last season with a broken collarbone suffered in the first conference game. But, with just one other QB on the roster with any experience, the coaches added Gerrit Groenewold to the depth chart to back up Cookus and Hunter Correll, a junior who saw very limited time in just two games last year.
Groenewold, a local graduate from Estrella Foothills High School in Goodyear, played last season for Arizona Christian University where he threw for 2,535 yards and 20 touchdowns to win the league’s offensive Player of the Year award for the second straight season.
Head coach Jerome Souers has also beefed up the roster with some other experienced transfers in an effort to provide some needed depth at various positions. Likely to provided the biggest immediate impact are tight end Wallace Gonzalez, who played three seasons for Utah, and defensive back Spencer Havird, who also comes with three years of college experience under his belt. Havird played for Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina.
But Souers, who is beginning his 20th season at the helm of the NAU program, is still faced with the challenge of blending in new players that make up about half the team’s 100-member roster.
Three who played their prep ball in-state are expected to be major contributors this season. Emmanuel Butler, Tyler Shank, and Griffin Roehler were named to this year’s preseason All-Conference squad. Butler is a wide receiver from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix who set the NAU school record for receiving yards in a single season (1,208) and Shank is a 285-pound offensive lineman from Chandler High who was a second-team All-Conference selection last year. Both are seniors.
Roehler, a sophomore from Agua Fria High School in Avondale, does the kicking for the ‘Jacks. He was the starting kicker last season when he made 44 of 45 point-after attempts and 13 of 16 field goals.
Souers is taking the usual optimistic approach to Saturday’s game, at least publicly. “A win is a win,” he says, “so it would be great to get a win. But it’s one of those things where we want to come out and have a great game. We want to do what we do – go fast, score points, and create turnovers on defense.
“Whatever happens, happens.”
In reality, Souers just hopes his boys can keep the game close. Arizona is coming off its worse season under head coach Rich Rodriguez, a 3-9 finish last year, but Souers knows that’s not going to be the kind of team he faces off against Saturday.
You can be sure he will have his team mentally ready once again for its semi-annual beating from the Pac-12 bully.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)