NAU football faces Texas-sized challenge in season opener

Most college football programs frontload their schedules by lining up a couple of soft opponents to get the season off on the right foot.

But Northern Arizona University is taking an entirely different approach this season.

The Lumberjacks will open the 2021 season by hosting Sam Houston State University, which finished last season as the No. 1 FCS team in the country — and opens this season as the preseason favorite to win back-to-back titles.

To add a little extra pressure on the Jacks, the stands at Walkup Skydome will be filled with NAU fans who will witness their team’s performance.  Due to the pandemic, the Sept. 2 game will mark the first time since November of 2019 that fans will be in attendance at the Skydome.

Despite the fact that the Jacks won both home games in the shortened 2020 season, a blowout in this game will be a tough way to begin a season that holds little promise as it is; NAU is projected to finish seventh in the Big Sky Conference preseason polls.

Sam Houston, whose campus is in Huntsville, TX, is returning an entire starting lineup from an undefeated season (10-0) and has two players that have been named to this year’s Walter Payton Award watch list: redshirt junior quarterback Eric Schmid and wide receiver Jequez Ezzard, a graduate student.  The award is given annually to the top offensive player in the FCS.

NAU played only half of the total games as the Bearkats, in a season that was pushed into the spring as a result of COVID-19 concerns.  The Lumberjacks finished the shortened season 3-2, winning the final two games to provide a little momentum for the next season.

This will be the third season in Flagstaff for head coach Chris Ball, who replaced Jerome Souers, the program’s head coach for better than two decades.

Ball’s first two seasons haven’t generated much enthusiasm among the fan base. The Jacks finished Ball’s inaugural season in 2019 with a 4-8 overall record, just two conference wins, and closed on a four-game losing streak.

Last season, which was anything but normal thanks to the COVID interruptions, didn’t do anything to build fan confidence.  The Jacks rushed for an average 127 yards per game and averaged 251 ypg passing.  The team’s leaders in the ground game were both underclassmen: Draycen Hall, who was playing his first season after graduating from Higley High School in Gilbert, managed just 48 yards per game, and George Robinson (photo above), a sophomore this season, finished the 2020 season averaging 38 yards.

The third-leading rusher last season was quarterback Keondre Wudtee, who wasn’t called on to do much running.  He averaged just under 10 yards per game.

It’s no wonder that building a ground game was a priority during the offseason

Wudtee is a graduate student who transferred in from Oklahoma State, where he saw limited playing time in two seasons with the Cowboys.  At NAU, he played in just two games during the 2019 season, but started all five games last year.

That’s what Ball has to work with this season in the key offensive positions as he tries to prepare this team for a match-up with the No. 1 team in the FCS.

He will be going into that opening game just two weeks away at a decided disadvantage — to begin a critical season in which he will be expected to begin turning the corner toward success.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)