Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
RECORD LAST SEASON: 7-5 OVERALL, 6-2 IN BIG SKY CONFERENCE PLAY
2018 NON-CONFERENCE RECORD: 1-2
BIG QUESTION: How will Case Cookus’ health impact the Big Sky title race?
The availability or unavailability of Cookus, NAU’s junior All-American quarterback, has had as much an influence on the Big Sky title race as the presence of any single player over the last four years. Cookus threw 35 touchdowns in earning National Freshman of the Year honors and bring Northern Arizona to the brink of the 2015 FCS Playoffs.
The 6-foot-4, strong-armed signal caller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 2016. NAU finished 5-6.
In a bizarre season plagued by the disfunction of the dismissal and then non-dismissal of longtime head coach Jerome Souers and the season-ending injury to All-American wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, the strangeness came to a head in Missoula. Cookus, who remained largely healthy last season, became the first college quarterback to be ejected from a game for targeting when he got tossed in NAU’s eventual 17-15 loss at Montana.
Last season, the Lumberjacks lost their first two games, leading to the announcement that Souers would not return for his 21st season. Cookus and NAU proceeded to rip off six straight victories. Then former athletic director Lisa Campos jumped ship to UTEP. Mike Malone gave Souers a contract extension following a 48-20 loss to rival Southern Utah to back into the playoffs. In Flagstaff, NAU was on the wrong end of a 41-10 whipping to non-scholarship San Diego of the Pioneer Football League.
Cookus never seemed to fully recover from being shaken up by the ejection in Missoula. But he did earn first-team All-Big Sky honors, recognized ahead of Eastern Washington star Gage Gubrud and UC Davis’ Jake Maier, two of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country. Cookus threw for 211 yards and two touchdowns in NAU’s certainly satisfying 30-10 win over UTEP to open the season.
Cookus suffered a similar shoulder injury that cost him the 2016 season in the second quarter of Northern Arizona’s 31-26 loss to Eastern Washington in Flagstaff. Cookus did not play as Northern Arizona ended up on the wrong end of a 40-8 whipping at Missouri State last weekend.
If Cookus returns to health and can reignite his chemistry with Butler, the Lumberjacks should threaten for a playoff berth. NAU also has the good fortune of the EWU game serving as a non-conference affair and a league schedule that does not include Montana State, Montana or Idaho. But if Cookus cannot return, it may not matter who NAU plays. It will be a stark challenge to win without their talented star quarterback.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: EMMANUEL BUTLER, senior wide receiver
When healthy and paired with Cookus’ ability to throw the deep ball accurately, Butler is among the most unstoppable offensive weapons in the FCS. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former high school tight end has the size, strength, body control, ball skills and ability to snare a pass at its highest point of a future NFL Draft pick. Injuries have been the only thing to slow him down.
After averaging more than 18 yards per catch on 13 receptions as a true freshman, Butler broke out in 2015 in Cookus’ first year as a starter. He earned first-team All-Big Sky honors and third-team All-American honors by scoring an NAU-record 15 touchdowns to go with a single-season program record of 1,208 yards. As a junior, Butler was again a 1,000-yard receiver and again a first-team All-Big Sky pick. He scored 10 touchdowns, helping him enter 2017 second in school history in career receiving touchdowns with 26.
But Butler suffered a somewhat similar shoulder injury caused by impact that Cookus has endured twice, a bang that cost Butler the last nine games of last season. He’s back in the fold but it remains to be seen if Cookus will be healthy for league play.
Butler has 10 catches for 214 yards and two touchdowns during NAU’s 1-2 start. Butler did not have a catch in the loss at Missouri State last week. He reportedly came up limping late against EWU and hardly played in last week’s loss.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER TO WATCH: WES SUTTON, senior safety
Northern Arizona’s secondary is not only veteran individually but also familiar with each other. Sutton, senior safety Kam’Ron Johnson and senior cornerback Maurice Davison enter their third years starting alongside one another. Junior Khalil Dorsey, the runner-up in the Big Sky Outdoor track championships in the 110-meter hurdles last spring, is entering his second year starting in the secondary.
Sutton’s cerebral superiority and leadership ability paired with Johnson’s physicality, Davison’s competitiveness and Dorsey’s speed give NAU one of the most intriguing and potential-filled defensive back ends in the Big Sky.
Sutton, a 6-foot, 185-pounder, started nine games between 2015 and 2016 before earning the starting strong safety role last fall. He finished the season as a first-team All-Big Sky Conference selections thanks to 72 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two interceptions and three pass breakups. He scored a 63-yard touchdown in a 37-17 win over Sacramento State that likely kept the Hornets out of the playoffs.
NAU head coach Jerome Souers: “I’m looking at it as a fresh start,” Souers said. “I worked for Mike Marlow at Montana and he’s a leader. It’s been fun since he’s been on board. I told the President that I would help in the transition in leadership. If I’m a part of this in the future is yet to be determined. But for now, it’s my job to help Mike make sure we have a seamless transition and build on the things we’ve done well.”
Big Sky Conference opener: Southern Utah at Northern Arizona, 5 p.m. MST