‘Jacks prepared for D-I Arizona

Arizona running back Nick Grigsby avoids the tackle during the Wildcats 45-24 victory over NAU last year.


Arizona running back Nick Grigsby avoids the tackle during the Wildcats’ 45-24 victory over NAU last year.

Bobby Stover

Midway through last football season, Northern Arizona appeared bound for the Division I-AA postseason with a record of 6-1 overall and 3-0 in Big Sky Conference play. The Lumberjacks were even ranked as high as No. 15 in D-1AA through the first seven weeks.


But by the end of the season, the Lumberjacks had dropped to 6-5 overall, 4-4 in the conference and found themselves bound for yet another lonely December in frigid Flagstaff, Ariz.


The dramatic downfall of NAU leaves the 2009 squad with a number of question marks, but none more prevalent than how this year’s team will respond to challenges.


“”There’s a mental aspect of (facing adversity), that we have to be prepared for,”” NAU head coach Jerome Souers said in a conference call Wednesday. “”A lot of things went against us and we didn’t respond well. What I want to see out of this football team (this season) is that when things go against us we handle it a lot better.””


Souers’ NAU squad will likely get early exposure to adversity tomorrow night when they kick off their season against an Arizona team fresh off a 19-6 win over Central Michigan last Saturday.


In the victory, the Wildcats proved they have what Souers called “”a very stingy defense”” ­— one NAU quarterback Michael Herrick will have to try and pick apart.


Herrick comes into the game with limited experience from last season after spending most of the year behind senior Lance Kriesen. But in the action Herrick did see, the junior showed glimpses of his potential with a 64.7 completion percentage — nearly five points higher than Kriesen. With the offense solely under his control heading into the season, Herrick is looking forward to taking charge of the NAU offense.


“”It’s been a while since I’ve been a starter so (getting that opportunity) is really exciting,”” Herrick said. “”I just want to go out there and have some fun and try to get back into the swing of things.””


While the junior should not pose much of a running attack for the Arizona defense — he netted -94 yards in 2008 — Herrick does have some dangerous targets through the air.


Senior Ed Berry is NAU’s leading receiver from last season, averaging 58 yards per game. Fellow senior Conrad Meadows was also one of the Lumberjacks’ top aerial threats finishing the year with a team-high four touchdown passes.


The pressure will be on Herrick entering the season as NAU will be missing the ground attack of last season’s leading rusher Deonte Williams who transferred to Sierra College after contributing 86 yards per game along with 12 scores on the year. Williams will be replaced by senior Alex Henderson who saw limited game action last season but averaged 63.5 yards per game in six contests.


“”We certainly feel (the loss of Williams),”” Herrick said. “”But we got Alex Henderson who’s a great (running) back and he’s been here for three years. I really believe that we’ve got some really good backs and I trust them, so I’m not worried about our running game.””


Defensively, the Lumberjacks are opening their season with injuries. Linebackers Cody Dowd – a preseason All-Big Sky selection – and Jared Fono along with defensive lineman Kainoa Pe’a will all miss tomorrow’s game with various injuries. The absence of these players will make it even tougher to stop Arizona’s two-headed running attack of quarterback Matt Scott and running back Nic Grigsby who both ran for 83 and 118 yards respectively last weekend.


While the key losses on NAU’s defense will surely generate a tough test for the Lumberjacks, Souers and his squad are ready this season to deal with this type of adversity.


“”We worked very hard over the offseason to approach adversity in a positive way,”” Souers said. “”We’ve worked at how we look at things mentally as well as how we handle ourselves in the face of adversity because every season’s going to have it.

“”I think as a football team we’re anxious to prove we’re not (a weak-minded) team.””