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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


‘Jacks lumber into town for season opener

Sophomore quarterback Case Cookus passes to Junior running back Corbin Jountti Sept. 17, 2016 in Walkup Skydome. Cookus throws for 7 touchdown passes Saterday. (Photo by Michael Patacsil)

The Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks come to Arizona Stadium for the first game of the 2017-18 season. The Lumberjacks last made an appearance in Tucson Sept. 19, 2015, where they gave up 77 points to the Wildcats en route to a 64 point loss. Arizona leads 13-1 in the all-time series, winning the last 12 in a row.

The Lumberjacks highlight a passing attack that is led by quarterback Case Cookus. Cookus has been named to the Walter Payton Award and the College Football Performance Awards (CFPA) FCS National Performer of the Year watch list for this season. He was the most efficient passer in the country in passer efficiency with a 184.70 rating. A season ago versus ASU he completed 23 of 33 passes for 369 yards and a touchdown. Cookus tied his own school record for passing touchdowns in a game last season against New Mexico Highlands with seven.

Cookus will look for a pair of senior receivers Emmanuel Butler and and Elijah Marks. Butler had over 1,000 yards receiving last season to go with nine touchdowns. Marks contributed seven touchdowns to go with 770 yards receiving a year ago.

The Lumberjack passing attack is one of the best in FCS, but after Cookus was injured four games into the season NAU limped to a 5-6 record overall in the Big Sky Conference. It will test an Arizona secondary looking to redeem itself from a year ago when they were ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in pass defense.

Senior Bowl watch list nominee Dane Cruikshank alongside Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who was ranked as the top safety coming into the season for the Pac-12, will set the tone for Arizona. Freshman Scottie Young and redshirt freshman Lorenzo Burns are amongst a host of players on the defense looking to make an impact in their first season.

NAU is led on defense by junior Jake Casteel. If that name rings familiar, he is the son of former Arizona defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Jake had a combined 55 takles last season, including 15 for loss and 8.5 sacks. The product of local Tucson Salpointe High School has solidified himself as one of the teams best defenders in his third season.

The Lumberjacks are undersized, as are most Football Championship Subdivision schools. This should make running the ball an easier task for Arizona. The Wildcats have their top returning rushers back in J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson. Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez and company shouldn’t have a tough time running the ball this season. However, passing the ball will be what everyone keeps an eye on.

Brandon Dawkins and Khalil Tate are the two quarterbacks ahead of everyone on the depth chart, though a starter has yet to be determined. Rodriguez has said that Tate has done everything he can to catch up to the more experienced Dawkins, but hasn’t intimated whether he has. Dawkins returns to Arizona after having an up and down year my most estimations. Dawkins was effective on the ground, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards last season. However, his pass efficiency was inconsistent, completing only 54 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and six interceptions in ten games played.

Tate was the starter for one game last year, versus USC, but in that game he showed his inexperience and struggled. Tate was 7-for-18 passing for 58 yards and one interception before being pulled for tight end Matt Morin at quarterback. The freshman did show glimpses, especially against UCLA when he ran for 83 yards and completed 5-for-9 passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Tate also showcases a strong arm and big size at the quarterback position.

Rodriguez is entering his sixth year as Arizona head coach. He has a combined record of 111-77 in division one, which includes his 36-29 record at Arizona. The Wildcats are coming off a 3-9 season, the worst during the Rodriguez era. Prior to 2016, Arizona reached bowl games in four consecutive seasons, highlighted by a 2014 South Division Championship and appearance in both the Pac-12 Championship game and Fiesta Bowl. The expectations have not met reality for Arizona fans when it comes to the football program the past two seasons and Rodriguez is considered to be one of the coaches in college football on the “hot seat.” According to USA Today, Rodriguez has the second highest odds to get fired in the Pac-12, just behind UCLA’s Jim Mora.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. at Arizona Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2.

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter

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