The announcement came down like a hammer. The godfather of Big Sky Conference football would not return.
The Northern Arizona administration tried to spin the announcement positively. After an 0-2 start by the Lumberjacks’ football team, NAU athletic director Lisa Campos announced the 2017 season would be the final campaign for revered head coach Jerome Souers.
The 59-year-old has been at Northern Arizona for 20 seasons. He is in a contract year. NAU entered 2017 with high expectations for the sixth straight year after 2013’s playoff appearance, the playoff push in 2015, last season entering the season as the preseason Big Sky Conference favorites and beginning this season as a top contender in the league.
Regardless of if the 0-2 start influenced the announcement, regardless of the various factors surrounding the perception of Souers’ final season, the Lumberjacks have not blinked in the face of uncertainty. The Lumberjacks have won four straight, including a dominant 37-16 victory over No. 7 Illinois State, arguably the best non-conference win by any Big Sky team this season.
“I was definitely a little shocked but he has had a great career,” NAU All-American junior quarterback Case Cookus said. “Having 20 years at a place, that’s five times longer than most other coaches. That’s an awesome milestone that he’s made. I’m sad to see him go. We will see who our new coach is. But right now, he’s still our head coach, we have a lot of games ahead of us and we are excited about that.”
The announcement of Souers’ resignation served as just one piece of heavy news less than a month into the season. Emmanuel Butler, a two-time All-American wide receiver and arguably the Big Sky’s top NFL prospect entering his senior year, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against WIU. Like with Souers’ circumstance, the Lumberjacks, particularly senior wide receiver Elijah Marks (45 catches, 771 yards, 5 TDs entering Saturday game vs. UC Davis).
“It was motivation,” Marks said. “Those are the distractions our coaches always tell us to not focus on. We focus on the week at hand. We love being able to be together on the field. Coming off 0-2, nobody wants to be 0-2 starting the season. We had to get it right.
“Emmanuel’s injury helped ignite me. That Thursday, I was like, ‘Man.’ He kept me motivated and he’s a big-time playmaker. Not having him on the other side is a big loss. But we can’t focus on that.”
NAU has been steady during Souers’ two decades at the helm after he took the head coaching gig in Flagstaff in 1998. Souers spent the prior 12 seasons as a defensive coach at Montana, including serving as the Griz defensive coordinator form 1989 until 1997 first for Don Read, then for two seasons under Mick Dennehy. Souers led Northern Arizona to the playoffs in 1999, 2001 and 2003 before a decade of finishing in the middle of the league.
Since the Big Sky’s expansion in 2012 from nine to 13 teams, NAU has been one of the top tier outfits in the conference. NAU won eight games in 2012, nine games in 2013’s playoff season behind All-American running back Zach Bauman’s memorable effort, and seven games each in 2014 and 2015. Two years ago, NAU won five out of six behind Cookus’ ability to stretch the field with an explosive arm.
The ‘Jacks sat on the edge of the playoff bubble entering its rivalry game for the Grand Canyon Trophy against Southern Utah. NAU lost 49-41 as the Thunderbirds claimed their first-ever Big Sky crown in 2015.
Still, that 7-4 mark led to optimism entering last season. With Cookus returning for his sophomore year surrounded by weapons like Butler, an All-American as a sophomore in 2015, and the speedy Marks, a sophomore that same year, the Lumberjacks were the consensus pick from the league’s coaches and affiliated media as the favorite to win the league title last season.
Cookus broke his collarbone during NAU’s first conference game and missed the rest of the season. Northern Arizona never recovered, stumbling to a 5-6 finish that included four league wins and ratcheted up the pressure entering this season.
“When you lose a player the caliber of Case Cookus, it can have an impact of your season and your team has to be able to respond in a way that matches what you lost,” Souers said at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, Utah last July. “I don’t think we raised our standard as a team the way we needed to.
“Every year on your schedule, there are games you think you should win but that gest less and less each year in this conference. It’s hard to win in this conference.”
With the return of Cookus, Butler and Marks, the prognosticators again pinned NAU as among the Big Sky preseason favorites entering this season. But internally, the Lumberjacks had plenty to replace. Tim Plough, the coordinator behind the offensive scheme that helped Cookus throw for more than 3,500 yards and 35 touchdowns to earn FCS National Freshman of the Year, left for the same position at his alma mater. UC Davis. Defensive backs coach Cha’pelle Brown followed Plough to Davis.
Souers hired Brian Sheppard, a former quarterback at Southeast Louisiana who made previous stops at Willamette as the OC (2011-2012) and Indiana State as the linebackers and special teams coach (2013-16), to replace Plough.
Northern Arizona still employs similar run-pass option elements and Cookus still uses his elite arm to stretch the field. But the offense has also become more diverse because of the pre-snap checks available and the overall maturation of NAU’s 6-foot-4 baby faced gunslinger.
“Now Case has the ability now to get us in and out of good plays,” Sheppard said following the Illinois State win in early October. “Now with developing Case’s football IQ, he is able to check either to a play opposite or to a better play.
“I try to make it as user-friendly as possible. Given Case’s tools, you just empower him with the offense. Now he feeds off of that. Because he enjoys it, he wants to be good at it so he studies it and he makes us right.”
The results have been impressive. NAU is throwing for 339 yards per game and averaging 33.2 points per outing. Northern Arizona is averaging 39.3 points and 361 passing yards during its 3-0 start in conference play.
Cookus is throwing for 322 yards per game. He has completed 61 percent of his passes and thrown 16 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in league play, earning Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors twice in the last four weeks.
“He’s not only one of the best quarterbacks in the conference but one of the best in the country,” said UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins, who’s Aggies face Cookus and NAU on Saturday in Flagstaff.
The offense may be under new direction but the defense is being guided by an old stalwart. Andy Thompson enters his 13th season on Souers’ staff, including his eighth as NAU’s defensive coordinator.
NAU gave up 62 points and 506 rushing yards in a season-opening loss at Arizona. Western Illinois rolled up 207 yards rushing, 422 yards of offense and scored 38 points in an 18-point win to spoil the home opener at Walkup Skydome. Since the 0-2 start, Thompson’s defense has been lights out despite a slew of injuries to NAU’s defensive front.
Northern Arizona leads the league in scoring defense during conference play by allowing 16.7 points per game. Led by a spirited effort from defensive line man James Walton (three tackles for loss), Northern Arizona held Cal Poly’s vaunted triple option offense to 178 yards rushing in a 28-10 win.
The ‘Jacks registered 14 tackles for loss, six sacks and forced three turnovers, including one pick linebacker Taylor Powell took 85 yards for a touchdown in a 48-20 win over Northern Colorado.
Northern Arizona held Illinois State’s powerful offense to 63 yards rushing thanks to Josh Clark’s 11-tackle, three tackle for loss performance. NAU had 10 tackles for loss, five sacks and three interceptions in the upset win.
Last week in a 42-20 win at Portland State, the Lumberjacks had 11 tackles for loss and two interceptions. NAU currently leads the league with 11 picks, including two the ‘Jacks have returned for touchdowns. The defense already had 48 tackles for loss, led by Walton’s 9.5.
“After the 0-2 start, they went to work,” Thompson, a former Montana linebacker, said. “College football is a long season. We had practiced seven weeks and we had played only two games. We knew at the start of the season that we were going to play some good opponents and we knew we didn’t have a veteran group. We just really wanted to continue to preach the message of continuing to get better.”
“We are trying to get better for longer here at NAU. That’s’ been the mantra the whole off-season.”
Senior defensive end Clarence Smith and linebacker Byron Evans are the only senior on the unit. Thompson and Souers both praise the progress and development of junior safeties Kam’Ron Johnson and Wes Sutton for part of the defense’s progress.
“We are doing things better in our back end technically,” Souers said. ‘We are more fundamentally sound. Our experience, Wes Sutton and Kam’Ron Johnson are juniors now and they have played a lot of football for us. They have a lot to do with how our defense performs.”
“Learning our defensive identity and our mix this year has been a result of a lot of planning and some experimentation. Andy has done a great job of formulating what I think has become more of a consistent unit. Our rush defense has improved dramatically since the first couple of weeks and that needs to continue.”
NAU is sure to be talented again next season, particularly if Cookus returns for one more season, the defense continues to develop and Butler is granted a hardship waiver for a fifth season. But all that will play out without Souers at the helm. For now, the Lumberjacks are squarely focused on chasing Souers’ third Big Sky championship.
“Our kids have shown a lot of guts and that makes me proud,” Souers said. “We are halfway through the season and we are starting to get a picture of who we are and what we are about. You usually are what you emphasize and we really try hard to emphasize ball security on offense and in the return game and creating turnovers defensively and being disruptive on the field
“I think our coaches and our players have done a phenomenal job of staying in the moment.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved.