Jerome Souers knew his team needed a jolt, something to help the Lumberjacks keep pace in the high-scoring Big Sky Conference, so he hired Tim Plough and scrapped the West Coast offense that had been the Lumberjacks’ trademark. When the guy NAU targeted to run the new attack left the ‘Jacks high and dry, Souers made a phone call to an old friend.
In the off-season, Northern Arizona’s veteran head coach promoted Plough, formerly his wide receivers coach, to offensive coordinator, giving the former UC Davis quarterback the reigns to implement a spread system with an added emphasis on throwing the ball down the field.
In April, former University of Texas and University of Arizona quarterback Connor Brewer announced he would transfer to Northern Arizona. But when Greyson Lambert jumped ship from Virginia to Georgia, the Cavaliers had an ACC roster spot. In June, Brewer announced he would transfer to UVA, leaving Northern Arizona with a new offensive strategy and no one to run the attack.
Souers scrambled, calling up former Sacramento State head coach Steve Mooshagian who is now the head coach at Ventura (California) College, one of the top junior colleges in the Golden State. Mooshagian, the former Pitt offensive coordinator and former Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers coach, was the head coach at Sac State from 2003 to 2006. Mooshagian and Souers have known each other for years. Mooshagian told Souers he had a freshman quarterback grey shirting and his anticipated starter in 2014.
Souers invited Case Cookus, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder from Thousand Oaks, California to NAU’s individual camp in the summer. Souers loved the 20-year-old’s personality, mechanics and coachable nature. Souers sold Cookus on Plough’s new offense and the way it would emphasize Cookus’ ability to manage a game and throw the ball down the field. After spending a few days in Flagstaff, Cookus committed.
“Coach Mooshagian didn’t want to lose the kid but he figured if he got the kid a D-I scholarship and the opportunity to play this soon, which is what we were looking for, it would work out,” Souers said. “The transition began in the summer. Trying to pick up this system in a short time has been a challenge but he’s going to be fine if we can keep him healthy. He has a chance to be pretty good.”
Thus far, Cookus has been solid. The freshman beat out senior Kyren Poe, a starter for parts of the last two seasons, during fall camp. As Northern Arizona prepares to host No. 11 Montana State on Saturday afternoon, Cookus has completed 66 percent of his passes for 905 yards (226 yards per game) and eight touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. He is second to EWU junior Jordan West in passer efficiency with a rating of 194.1.
“Coach had told me that I had an opportunity to try to win the job so coming in, I tried my best to try to give as much effort as I could every single day, show the rest of the team that I could be a leader and be counted on,” Cookus said.
“The pressure, it exists, the fact that I am a freshman. Honestly the most pressure I felt was the New Mexico Highlands game (a 41-5 win) playing with the home crowd. I was a little nervous, first time my family was able to watch me. It was a big deal. But I’ve slowly started to settle in.”
At one time, Brewer was a top 150 recruit, a four-star quarterback who some thought was the future in Austin. He never took a snap as a Longhorn or a Wildcat, yet the NAU coaches thought he would be a good solution. Now that the staff has an idea of what they have in Cookus, Souers loves the way it’s played out.
“Absolutely,” Souers said. “I can’t say those words any stronger. You don’t want a guy in your program that doesn’t want to be here. If that’s what Brewer’s thoughts were all along, I don’t want to waste my time on a guy who doesn’t want to be here. Case has jumped in and he’s building a strong relationship with his teammates already. He’s earned a lot of respect.”
A key to Cookus’ acclimation to college football has come in the form of an emerging star. Sophomore wide receiver Emmanuel Butler showed flashes as a true freshman last season but has burst onto the scene this season. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder is averaging 28.6 yards per catch on his 18 receptions. He has totaled more than 100 yards in three of four starts this season including a 216-yard performance in NAU’s 34-28 win over No. 24 Stephen F. Austin to begin the season.
Butler is second to Eastern Washington All-America Cooper Kupp in the Big Sky with seven touchdowns. Butler snared touchdowns of 57, 47 and 36 yards against SFA, 46 yards against NMH, 62 yards against Arizona and TDs of 57 and 34 yards last week in a 23-14 loss at Montana.
“Case and Emmanuel have been great players for us so far,” NAU senior captain running back Casey Jahn said. “Case coming in as a grey shirt freshman has absolutely played amazing. He’s really become a weapon for our offense. And Emmanuel, he is in my opinion the best receiver in the Big Sky for sure. He can beat anyone one-on-one whenever you want. In this offense, you need those big plays.”
Butler looks the part of an FBS receiver. He has long arms, strong hands, good speed and exceptional size. All of his touchdowns have come in one-on-one situations in which he has simply won his individual battle. As a prep senior, Butler primarily played tight end at Mountain Pointe High in Phoenix, serving as a team captain as a junior and a senior. Sometimes, he split out wide to exploit mismatches as the Pride won their first state title in school history and achieved a No. 11 national ranking. Mountain Pointe defeated top-ranked Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) on ESPN 28-21 on August 23 to spark the state title run.
But Butler played out of position on an incredibly talented team that featured a pair of Division I receivers: UNLV redshirt freshman Dominique Fenstermacher is a defensive back for the Rebels. Jalen Brown is a redshirt freshman wide receiver at Oregon. Butler attended NAU’s camp between his junior and senior season and Souers couldn’t help but notice his potential. He received a late offer from Wyoming but he stuck with the Lumberjacks.
“In high school, he played tight end. He caught 11 balls,” Souers said. “We saw him in camp and in that one day, he must’ve caught 25 touchdowns and he was just eating everybody alive. He’s a big, physical guy, strong hands, really strong hands. He’s tough to cover, especially in one-on-one situation.
“He had the ability last year as a true freshman to do those things but we were not getting the ball deep to him so I made some changes in our offense to try to improve that. Now we are getting him the ball.”
On Tuesday, Butler said he has noticed the prevalence of man coverage employed by Montana State. Butler has watched the Bobcats’ 55-50 loss to Eastern Washington a few times, watching as the Eagles took advantage with passes down the field time and again as Jordan West threw for 410 yards and six touchdowns, completing 10 passes of more than 29 yards in the process.
“They played man on Cooper Kupp and that was surprising,” Butler said. “I know they are going to let their corners play our receivers man-to-man.
“I love it when a team plays man to man on me,” Butler continued. “I love the challenge. I will challenge anyone to play me man-to-man because I have confidence in my ability and I have confidence in our offense. We know we are going to make plays. And it’s not just me. All of our receivers, you play us man-to-man, you will be in for a long day.”
The Lumberjacks averaged 37.5 points per game in winning two straight to begin the season. NAU hardly stood a chance in Tucson in a 77-13 to Arizona two weeks ago. Cookus missed the second half with an ankle injury. Last week, Montana jumped out to a 10-0 lead and held on thanks to eight sacks, including four by senior Tyrone Holmes in a 23-14 homecoming win.
Now NAU returns home for the first time against a Division I opponent. It’s family weekend in Flag and the ‘Jacks say they will play off the atmosphere.
“Not only being back at home but coming off a loss to Montana that really humbled us and made us work a lot harder,” Butler said. “We are going to be ready for this game. The dome is going to be sold out. It’s family weekend so we expect a packed house and it’s going to have us all charged up around here.”
Photos courtesy of Northern Arizona athletics/Mike Bashor unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.