An air of mystery hangs over this year’s spring football practices at Northern Arizona University.
For the first time in 21 years, there’s a new guy running the program. Lumberjack fans know little about Chris Ball, who was hired last December to replace Jerome Souers as the 30th head coach in the 104-year history of the program.
During the 2017 season, Souers had announced he would be stepping aside after that season, but then was brought back for the 2018 season after 2017 ended with six straight wins that included an upset of unbeaten and 7th-ranked Illinois State. After posting a 4-6 overall record in 2018, just the latest in several mediocre seasons of late, Souers traded in his coach’s whistle for a job in the athletic department.
The new coach’s name might be familiar to a few fans who closely follow Arizona State football. Ball was an assistant coach at ASU from 2012-15 before being hired by University of Memphis to be that school’s defensive coordinator, which he held for three years before being picked to lead the Lumberjack program.
But NAU fans want to find out how Ball is going to handle being a head coach. And will he be a worthy successor to the man who guided their program for more than two decades?
Throughout his career, Ball has been known as a defensive specialist. He was the defensive passing game coordinator and safeties coach at ASU and was on staff before that at Washington State, Pittsburgh, and Alabama.
So how’s he going to solve the Jacks’ offensive woes? NAU averaged just 26 points a game last season, a big part of the reason the Flagstaff school won just three Big Sky Conference contests.
Another big question mark hangs over quarterback Case Cookus, who hasn’t taken a game snap since last September.
The senior signal caller started his college career at NAU by being named the FCS STATS National Freshman of the Year and completed his inaugural season ranked among the top five in the FCS in four different offensive categories, including passing efficiency and passing touchdowns.
But his sophomore season was short-lived. After playing in just four games, he was sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury. However, he still racked up 1,173 passing yards and threw 13 TDs. That season had shown incredible promise when he threw for 369 against Arizona State in the season opener.
The import from California was back in his old form the next season when he posted a 58 percent completion percentage as he threw for 3,413 yards and 22 touchdowns. He finished ranked 10th nationally in completions per game, passing yards, and passing yards per game.
And then last year ended almost before it started. Cookus went down with a season-ending injury in the first quarter of the second game on the 2018 schedule, against Eastern Washington.
So, will this be the Case Cookus who held so much promise as a healthy freshman…or the injury-prone senior who has missed 15 games over the last three seasons?
(Photo: NAU Athletics)