Northern Arizona’s mountain campus draws future foresters and engineers and, it seems, more and more good football players.
The hope is there’s enough talent on the 2-1 Lumberjacks to take a landmark win Saturday in their Big Sky Conference football game against No. 14 Montana at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
It would be a victory for the Grand Canyon State: Right now there are 44 in-state players on the Jacks, including running backs Zach Bauman and Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson.
By comparison the 2004 team – the last NAU squad that made the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs – had 33 players from Arizona.
“I feel there are a number of things that have occurred to affect that dynamic,” NAU coach Jerome Souers said. “High school football in the state of Arizona has improved in the 15 years I’ve been here. And the Northern Arizona University campus has absolutely changed its landscape. You probably wouldn’t even recognize it from what it was three years ago.”
The hope is that a deeper pool of talented players, plus a better place to recruit them to, will make a difference.
“Some of the guys we’ve been able to get in recent years – I’m going to say the last three or four years – have been significantly different than the 10 years prior to that,” Souers said.
A payoff seems near. The Jacks were swamped 63-6 at Arizona State to start the season, but then won at UNLV (17-14) and drubbed Division II Fort Lewis 69-0 last week.
Bauman, who ran five times for 134 yards against Fort Lewis – all in the first quarter – led the Big Sky in rushing in 2011. Cary Grossart led the league in passing efficiency.
The duo is among 15 returning starters off a team that went 4-7.
“We were on the same recruiting trip,” Trey Gilleo, NAU’s senior right tackle, said of Grossart, who was hurt against ASU but is expected to start Saturday. “We’ve been great friends for the last four and a half years. I’m real happy I’ve been able to play with and protect a guy I came in with.”
Gilleo came out of Kingman, Ariz., as a 6-foot-6, 220-pounder. Not many programs besides NAU, 150 miles east in Flagstaff, recruited him.
“They put me in the weight room and got me to eat,” said Gilleo, who now weighs 300. “And luckily I was able to get some playing time.”
Gilleo is a home-grown player but NAU has taken on some transfers – including defensive linemen Justin Jungblut, Chima Ike and Mark Thompson as well as safeties Lucky Dozier and Blair Wishom.
They have shored up a defense that has gone away from the “Flex” look of years past. The Jacks of those days hid some shortcomings with its odd-front defense, but now they have ample size and speed.
But opponents still can’t be sure what “look” they’ll get.
“I don’t think we’re all over the map,” Souers said. “We wanted diversity in our defense. We wanted to be able to present an aggressive posture when needed and a conservative one when needed, and be able to play to each of that consistently and with as much discipline as possible.
“It’s easy to say; it’s difficult to do. But I think Andy Thompson, our defensive coordinator, is capturing that.”
“We scheme for each game, and we like to put our guys in the best position to succeed,” said defensive end Jarret Bilbrey. “But all this stuff is stuff that we’re grabbing from the bag; it’s stuff we practice and know.”
Bilbrey leads the team in tackles with 19. Linebacker Ryan Reardon is next at 18 and seven more Lumberjacks have at least 10 stops.
It’s a deep group that thirsts for a victory against the Griz. Souers was Montana’s defensive coordinator before taking over NAU in 1998, and he’s 0-14 against his old employer.
Add in NAU’s recent narrow losses – 41-34 in overtime in 2009, 24-21 on a last-second TD pass in 2010 and 28-24 last season – to UM and you know the next victory against the Grizzlies will be huge.
The Jacks can’t say this year is the year, but they’re going to try their best to make it happen.
“I want to win for my teammates, I want to win for my seniors, for my coach, for myself, for the school,” said Bilbrey. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve beaten them. I know it’d start off a conference championship run great, if we got the win.”
For Souers, Saturday is about the players.
“I can’t let the personal part of it come into play,” he said. “Every year we have a different team, and every year we have a different outlook or maybe a little different approach to it.
“It’s been close the last three times we’ve played. Nothing would make me happier than to see my players enjoy success in that setting. Because it’s been so difficult, to be that close and come away empty-handed.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Fritz_Neighbor.