Roster turnover obscures NAU’s pass game

Associated PressNorthern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus leads the Football Championship Subdivision with 3,664 yards and has 28 passing touchdowns.

Chris Ball must have felt fortunate when he got his first head-coaching gig, inheriting a Northern Arizona football program with a promising Big Sky defense.

Defense — a specifically turnover-forcing defense — has been his thing since the 1980s, anyway.

How nice it was he had a Walter Payton Award-caliber quarterback to boot.

What Ball probably didn’t see coming? So much roster turnover.

The Lumberjacks (4-7, 2-5 Big Sky), like Idaho, have been hamstrung by injuries this year. But unlike the Vandals (4-7, 2-5), NAU also had one of its best elect to transfer, and had a few key contributors up and leave earlier this year, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.

All this, and the ‘Jacks have fallen from an expectation to compete for a postseason spot down to the depths of Big Sky Conference also-ran status.

Their defense, a year after finishing in the top three in the league, is at the bottom. They still can pass it behind standout quarterback Case Cookus, certainly, but they toil in defending it. And on the ground, opponents have gone for an average of 238 yards per game on them.

In September, All-Big Sky defensive tackle Jalen Goss abruptly announced on Twitter his intentions to transfer. Not a month later, stellar linebacker Taylor Powell jumped ship, too, joining three notable defensive backs whom did the same in August. Adding to the depth issues, UCLA transfer corner Octavius Spencer was released from the team because of academic problems, the Sun reported.

Besides those, at least eight defenders on the two-deep depth chart have missed extended periods with injuries, and trusty red-zone-target tight end Matt Kempton went down for the year in Week 1.

“There’s some definite similarities,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said of his group and NAU. “Both teams have had some key injuries that’ve hurt ’em.”

Ball, a journeyman defensive coach who most recently coordinated a middling Memphis unit (2016-18), has assisted at 12 schools, including three separate stints at Washington State — he coordinated the Cougar defense from 2008-11.

He replaced Jerome Souers, a 21-year boss also with a taste for defense. Souers, the Big Sky’s all-time winningest coach (123-114), didn’t have his contract renewed after last season.

But contrasting NAU’s past — and opposite Idaho’s present — the Lumberjacks’ offense has kept them in games, the past three of which were one-score losses.

“So far, their team is kinda just like us,” UI defensive tackle Rahsaan Crawford said. “They play in a dome, they got a couple games they’ve should’ve won.”

The two meet at 1 p.m. Pacific on Saturday in Flagstaff’s Walkup Skydome (PlutoTV 539).

NAU’s also got something Idaho doesn’t — a Football Championship Subdivision star under center in 6-foot-4, 205-pound sixth-year senior Cookus, the classification’s leading passer with 3,664 yards to go with 28 scores and seven picks on a 60.7-percent completion rate.

NFL scouts reportedly have expressed interest in Cookus, and Illinois State coach Brock Spack conveyed the thinking to the Associated Press in September.

“We’ve seen an NFL quarterback; this is one,” he said. “He’s the best guy I’ve seen since (49ers quarterback Jimmy) Garoppolo at this level.”

Cookus sustained a season-ending injury in 2016, then came back in 2017 to lead NAU to the playoffs. In Week 2 last season, he suffered another year-ending injury — again to his shoulder — leaving the Lumberjacks’ defense to shoulder the load. Offensively deflated, NAU went 4-6.

“They have a real nice quarterback right now,” UI linebacker Tre Walker said, “As long as we contain him and limit his throws, limit his targets, make sure the rest is covered up, then we can really minimize them.”

Cookus’ first look is speedster Brandon Porter, who’s No. 10 in the FCS with 1,048 yards and has scored nine times.

“He can make plays, makes people miss,” Petrino said.

Think of NAU as similarly talented to Idaho, but reverse the teams’ top traits. The Lumberjacks excel through the air, but hardly run and err defensively.

Both are winless on the road. NAU has dropped three straight — it blew a lead against Sacramento State, then failed to score on the goal line at hapless Southern Utah.

It would seem Walker’s got the right idea in his assessment of the ’Jacks’ offense; it’s one-dimensional, greatly limited. It tallies 128.6 rushing yards per game, second-to-last in the league.

With insufficient defensive support (14 turnovers, 10th in the league) and an unreliable running game, the year’s been centered around Cookus.

“It just comes down to stopping their quarterback, stopping that air raid,” Vandals linebacker Christian Elliss said.

IDAHO INJURY UPDATE — Receiver Jeff Cotton and center Logan Floyd have been practicing this week but junior defensive end Kayode Rufai has not. Cotton and Floyd sustained injuries Nov. 9 at Montana and missed all of last week’s Sacramento State game, which severely impaired UI’s offense. Rufai hurt his shoulder against the Hornets.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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