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Behind Enemy Lines

Griz likely to face NAU's journeyman QB Blake Kemp this week

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Montana State Northern Arizona HOME football

Northern Arizona quarterback Blake Kemp (10) drops back to pass during the first half of a game against Montana State earlier this season in Bozeman.

After four years and two schools on opposite ends of the United States, Blake Kemp figured he was done with college football. He graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in communications back in the spring.

He was headed back to Chandler, Arizona, his hometown, when the Northern Arizona coaching staff caught wind of his move. The quarterback still had one year of eligibility remaining after all.

"I called my parents and said, 'Ya know, I think I'm ready to come home,'" Kemp told the Missoulian this week. "Then (NAU) basically told me they had some pretty good quarterbacks, but they were all really young and they needed a guy who could come in and bring some experience.

"It was a good fit."

Despite missing spring practices and playing catch-up during fall camp, Kemp finds himself as Northern Arizona's starter at the midway point of the season and staring into the teeth of the Montana Grizzlies this weekend.

He wouldn't be there without some good luck on his part -- and some bad for Case Cookus.

Cookus, the reigning STATS FCS Freshman of the Year, was looking to build off last year's record season in Flagstaff. It started that way, 13 touchdowns to just one interception in the first three and a half games, but a shoulder injury against Eastern Washington sent Cookus to the sideline and the doctors four weeks ago.

It's been Kemp's show ever since.

Kemp started eight games for the Pirates in 2015, passing for 2,600 yards with 16 touchdowns. In his three starts with NAU, he's thrown for another 787 with five touchdowns and only one interception.

All while still learning the intricacies of Northern Arizona and coordinator Tim Plough's offense.

"When you're the second-string quarterback it can be pretty hard," said Kemp, who played his first two years of college ball at Mesa (Arizona) Community College. "You only get about 30 percent of the reps in practice. I think getting reps in practice has made a big difference and made everything come a lot easier."

Head coach Jerome Souers sees it, too. Kemp's natural ability helped him earn the No. 2 spot over the younger NAU incumbents, but his work ethic has made sure he stayed there.

"I think it's tough asking a guy to come in in that setting to build rapport with receivers and the offensive line and to do the things that we're doing," Souers said, "but I think he's done an admirable job of picking things up and carrying the weight of the offense on his shoulders."

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Cookus was among the most dynamic players in the country last season for NAU, throwing for an FCS freshman record 37 touchdowns. He finished with 3,1117 passing yards and only five interceptions, earning the nation's No. 2 rank in passing efficiency.

Cookus is progressing quickly in his injury rehab, Souers said, but the quarterback has yet to return to practice. His availability for Saturday is highly doubtful.

Northern Arizona becomes a different team without him in the huddle, something Montana head coach Bob Stitt can relate to. He was without his starter, Brady Gustafson, for half of last season.

"You're glad you're not on the other side of it," Stitt said. "We've dealt with that and you have to adjust things. But they've done a nice job with their quarterback. Over the last couple weeks they're allowing him to do more and he's doing a great job of running the offense."

In fact NAU's only two wins over Division II competition have come with Kemp in the pocket. NAU was 1-3 in games started by Cookus, though it was hardly his fault. The three losses came against FBS Arizona State and top-20 FCS programs in Western Illinois and Eastern Washington.

The Jacks' won their first and second Big Sky Conference bouts the past two weeks against Montana State and Idaho State, the latter coming in a 52-7 blowout that may have helped NAU regain some momentum and confidence.

Kemp threw for 319 yards and four scores against ISU at home in the Walkup Skydome, including some passes way down the field. Like the 47-yarder to William Morehand that made it 45-0 early in the fourth quarter.

"Case probably moves around better and can extend plays and make things happen like that, but (Kemp) is a tremendous passer," Griz defensive coordinator Jason Semore said. "He throws really good deep balls, which is worrisome against our secondary."

Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. MDT and can be seen locally on Cowles Montana Media affiliates (ABC/FOX).

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