The most consistent trend in the Big Sky Conference this decade, at least when it comes to preseason predictions, is the team with the most talented returning quarterback is the team picked to win the league.
In 2011, Eastern Washington was fresh off a national championship with Bo Levi Mitchell returning as its quarterback. The Eagles were the unanimous selection to win the league. In 2012, Montana State reigning Big Sky Offensive MVP DeNarius McGhee returning for his junior season. The Bobcats were the league’s coaches and affiliated preseason pick to win the conference. Entering 2013, McGhee had one year left to affirm his status as a conference legend and again his Bobcats were the favorite. In 2014, EWU had Vernon Adams fresh off a 55-touchdown sophomore season and dominated the preseason polls. In 2015, Montana State was the consensus selection to repeat with the return of electric dual-threat Dakota Prukop returning after a breakout sophomore season the year before.
This summer, the preseason polls followed script. In 2015, Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus earned FCS Freshman of the Year honors by leading the country with 37 touchdown passes. As he enters his sophomore season, he has NAU thinking big. For the first time in school history, Jerome Souers’ squad is the consensus selection to win the Big Sky Conference. But now the Lumberjacks have to prove it.
The year after EWU’s lone national title, the Eagles were decimated by injuries and finished 6-5. In 2012, MSU repeated as Big Sky champions for the third straight year. In 2014, Adams battled injuries but still helped EWU affirm the prediction. Last fall, Montana State endured a collection of problems in finishing 5-6. In other words, preseason wins mean nothing on the football field.
“It’s humbling and it’s an honor to be recognized among the elite in this conference,” said Souers, who last led the Lumberjacks to the Big Sky title in 2003. “I love this conference and I have a great deal of respect for the coaches and the programs in the Big Sky.
“Will that help us win a game? No. Will that help galvanize our fan base, our alumni, the people who follow us? I hope so. If we do it right, we will use it for those reasons. But our football team has to maintain the hunger and the focus that we have demanded since the end of last year.”
Much of NAU’s preseason hype falls on Cookus’ shoulders and rightfully so. Last season, Cookus came out of nowhere, a transfer after one semester at Ventura Junior College who had played the position for less than a year after starring as a wide receiver at Thousand Oaks High north of Los Angeles. In his first season, he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,111 yards. His passer efficiency rating of 184.9 led the country.
“Case has all the qualities in a quarterback that seem to come very naturally to him,” Souers said on Tuesday. “His instincts, they betray a guy who has really only played the game for two years, at least the quarterback position. The way he was playing at the end of last year was like a senior quarterback would in regard to his reads, his ability to see pressure, call protections. He’s an amazing, smart guy.
“Athletically, he’s 6-4, he runs under a 4.6, he can move around in the pocket, his vision is outstanding, he’s a pure thrower, he spins the ball about as well as you’ve seen it and his accuracy is uncanny. I’ve never met a kid with that many skills who is that humble. When you put it all together, it’s a guy you love to have your offense.”
While almost every coach in the country would admit that an experienced and talented player under center is the first step toward chasing a championship, it’s not the only reason NAU is receiving hype within the Big Sky and the FCS.
“Anyone that doesn’t think Emmanuel Butler is one of the top 10 players in the country is crazy,” said NAU second-year offensive coordinator Tim Plough. “Some of these preseason rankings just drive me nuts that think he’s not at that level. But if people want to take him away, we have other weapons. In my opinion, if we do things correctly, there isn’t solid answer to stop us.”
Butler, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound athletic freak from Phoenix, is one of the primary reasons Souers felt comfortable scrapping his traditional West Coast offense in favor of the up-tempo spread system employed with Plough his first year calling the plays. Butler is a product of Mountain Pointe High in Arizona’s capital, a player who fell through the cracks to the FCS because the three starting receivers on his prep team are all now playing in the Pac 12. Butler had to play tight end in high school but the moment Souers saw him at NAU individual camp, he offered a full scholarship.
The leap of faith is already paying dividends. Last season, his first as a full-time starter, the fast, strong Butler looked unguardable. He caught 64 passes for 1,208 yards and 15 touchdowns, leading the league with nearly 19 yards per catch. His ability to beat one-on-one coverage on the outside and catch the ball at its highest point might be unparalleled in college football.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody go up and get the ball better than he does,” NAU wide receivers coach Aaron Pflugrad, who starred as a receiver at Arizona State, told the Arizona Daily Sun in April.
Cookus loved throwing deep off of run-pass option plays to Butler over the top during his first year as a starter. Now that the two had an off-season to build chemistry, Cookus said the rest of the Big Sky better look out.
“He’s worked so hard this off-season to get that route tree down,” Cookus said. “You bring up the NFL stuff and that’s his goal. He wants to get that route tree down because you can’t just have a fade ball in the league. You have to have a slant, a post, a comeback. He’s worked so hard and he’s so dangerous.
”His ability to get the ball, if it’s a 50-50 ball, 70-30, it’s almost ridiculous. He can’t be stopped.”
NAU’s offense has made the transition to up-tempo from pro-style as quickly as one could hope after nearly two decades of relying on stud tailbacks like Zach Bauman and Archie Amerson to move the chains.
“We are way ahead of where we thought we would be,” Plough said. “When Jerome came and wanted to do this offense, him and I talked about how it would probably take us two years. The first few games last season, you saw the inconsistencies. We played really well against Stephen F. Austin and Montana State but we played really poorly against Montana and UC Davis. We were still trying to figure out how to utilize the weapons we had.”
After NAU figured out all its weapons, from hard-nosed running back Casey Jahn to speedy slot receiver Elijah Marks to veterans like tight end RJ Rickert and Dejzon Walker, the Lumberjacks exploded. After a 38-24 loss to UC Davis, NAU scored 52, 63, 52, 49 and 41 points in succession. Overall, NAU averaged 39.5 points and 471 yards per game in their first year operating the attack.
“We have a head coach who is open to those ideas and isn’t afraid to take chances and gives us chances as coordinators to really take risks and he backs us 100 percent,” Plough said. “We have the guys who can do it on the field.”
While the offense crushed the learning curve into oblivion, it has an affect on NAU’s normally ball-hawking defense.
“We were winning some games the years before but I don’t think we’d ever been up 42-14 at the beginning of the third quarter like we were against Montana State,” said Andy Thompson, NAU’s defensive coordinator since 2009. “Montana State decided they had to come back and score. They abandoned everything they’d done on first and second down before that. The run game went out the window. It was scramble around, chuck the ball deep, take shots down the field. That’s hard to prepare for and hard to stop. But that’s our job.”
Montana State rallied hard before falling 49-41 in Flagstaff. The game was the first in a long line of examples of NAU’s quick-strike offense putting the defense in precarious position. Against Weber State, the ‘Jacks built a 42-9 lead in a 52-36 win. NAU built a 63-7 lead in a 63-21 win over Northern Colorado. Northern Arizona had leads of 38-14 and 45-22 in a 52-30 win over Eastern Washington. NAU held off Sac State 49-35 after building a 42-14 lead.
“We defended 200 more passes last year than we did in years past so getting our pass defense better, some different changeups, if we get in those situations again will help our defense a lot,” Thompson said.
“You talk about shots on goal in soccer and hockey. If a team gets 30, 35 shots on goal, they have a way better chance to score six goals than the normal one if they get 10 shots on goal. We have to defend a lot more shots but at the same time, your offense is taking more of them and scoring points, which is awesome for all of us.”
NAU begins its quest to affirm its Big Sky title favorite status with a challenging road game in Tempe against Arizona State on Saturday night.
The Lumberjacks have to replace Rickert and Walker but Butler, Marks and a slew of other playmakers return. NAU has a veteran offensive line featuring senior tackle Jacob Julian and senior center Blake Porter, each preseason All-Big Sky selections. Kendyl Taylor, a former transfer from Washington, will play tailback his senior year after catching 21 passes as a wide receiver last season. The tailback spot returns Corbin Jountti, who rushed for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns as NAU’s second ball carrier, along with adding highly touted true freshmen Joe Logan and Nathan Stinson. The defensive unit is filled with question marks after losing stalwarts like cornerback Marcus Alford and safety Eddie Horn but the Lumberjacks are confident their offensive prowess can overcome almost anything in the offensively prolific Big Sky.
“I think it’s our explosive plays that create that roll where we can downhill you,” Cookus said. “When we are getting those explosive plays, our offense is unstoppable. The only way we can get stopped, we say, is if we stop ourselves. That’s the only mindset we have. I know it’s a little cocky but it’s something you have to have that if the defense isn’t going to stop you, you are going to score. Every single time.”