Jerome Souers made an unexpected return last year, but if there was ever any lingering question about whether he would be back again for another season as the Northern Arizona University head football coach, that possibility is officially put to rest. Yesterday, the school announced the hire of Chris Ball to take over the FCS program in Flagstaff.
Souers has roamed the Lumberjack sidelines for better than two decades. It will seem strange next fall when he isn’t there.
Actually, NAU fans had already begun trying to adjust to the idea last year when Souers announced that he would be stepping away from the program after the 2017 season. That surprise came in a joint announcement by Souers and his boss, Athletic Director Lisa Campos. While the school allowed Souers to depart with the dignity of a “farewell tour” the rest of the season, it was pretty obvious he had been asked to step aside following a string of mediocre season records.
Souers led the Jacks to a 9-3 record and runner-up finish in the conference in 2013, but since then his teams haven’t been able to get over the seven-win hump. After an 0-2 start to the 2017 season, the joint announcement came down.
But then the team reeled off six straight wins that included a stunning upset of unbeaten and seventh-ranked Illinois State, and the administration suddenly decided they liked the coach they had. University President Rita Cheng announced that Souers would return for his 21st season, citing a need to “ensure the stability of the program.”
So much for stability. The team finished 4-6 overall, with three Big Sky Conference wins, and Souers was retired – this time for good.
Campos left the program shortly after the original announcement of Souers’ “farewell tour” and the coach’s fate was turned over to her replacement, Mike Marlow. Now that Marlow has found his new football coach, he will be able to focus on the next coaching hire. His women’s soccer coach just resigned his position after 18 years in that role.
Marlow worked out a deal with Souers to keep him involved in the school. Souers will continue to be a part of the athletic department, working on fundraising and Native American initiatives.
It’s not all that often that a defensive specialist is hired to take over a program, so Ball is fortunate to have the opportunity to step into a Division I position. He was hired away from the University of Memphis where he has been serving as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator the last three seasons, becoming the 30th head coach in the 104-year history of the program.
The 30-year coaching veteran, who has also been on staff at Washington State, Pittsburgh, and Alabama, has an Arizona connection as well. Ball was an assistant at Arizona State from 2012-15, serving as the defensive passing game coordinator and safeties coach. He left that Pac-12 program to follow Mike Norvell to Memphis. Norvell took the head coach’s job at Memphis, which plays in the American Athletic Conference, after four years as the ASU offensive coordinator.
That background with the ASU program should help with his recruiting efforts within the state and on the West Coast. NAU traditionally carries a roster heavy with local talent.
Ball’s experience on the defensive side has been extensive and dates back to his time in college when he was an All-American defensive back at Missouri Western State. Lumberjack fans can expect to see an aggressive style of defense next season. Ball’s defensive units at Memphis were some of the nation’s most opportunistic, forcing the fifth-most turnovers among FBS teams during his three years with the Tigers. His defense also ranked in the top 20 in turnover margin two of those three years.
The Jacks need some help on the defensive end; their opponents were averaging 32 points a game last year. However, their average offensive output was just under 26 points a game – more room for improvement.
Looks like the new coach has some work to do on both sides of the ball. How he builds his staff over the next couple of months will be the key to success in Flag.
And since this is Ball’s first job as a head coach, that process is going to be trial-and-error for awhile.
Have patience, Lumberjack fans.