With the Arizona State Sun Devils set to open the season against Northern Arizona on Saturday, we wanted to get a little more information on the Lumberjacks. The Sun Devils last played NAU in 2012, with ASU winning 63-6 in Todd Graham's first game as head coach.
A lot has changed since that meeting for both teams. While ASU was picked fifth in the Pac-12 South, the Lumberjacks were picked to win the Big Sky by the media and the coaches and recently came in at No. 18 in the first FCS poll of the season.
For some more information about ASU's first opponent of 2016, we asked Cody Bashore of the Arizona Daily Sun for the inside scoop on the Lumberjacks. (You can follow Cody on Twitter here)
House of Sparky: Coming off a 7-4 season and being ranked 18th in the FCS preseason poll, what are the expectations for NAU in the Big Sky and beyond in 2016?
Cody Bashore: The program expects to compete for the Big Sky Conference title and both the conference's coaches and media agree. The Lumberjacks were voted to finish first in both preseason polls for the first time in school history, so it is fair to say expectations have never been higher.
The offense the team has put together, led by FCS Freshman of the Year Case Cookus, should be among the highest scoring in the nation. After scoring at least 40 points in every home game a year ago, the belief is that the team will have even more firepower thanks to a few transfers and the returners entering their second year in the new system. Anything less than an FCS playoff berth will be considered a disappointment for the team, which is looking for a Big Sky title and a home playoff game.
HoS: Who are a few of players on each side of the ball that Sun Devil fans should look out for on Saturday night?
CB: Offensively, Cookus and his top wide receiver Emmanuel Butler are the obvious choices. Both have earned All-American honors from various outlets and each put together record breaking seasons a year ago. Cookus broke the FCS record for passing touchdowns by a freshman with 37, also a school record, as well as Northern Arizona's single-season record for completion percentage.
Butler caught 15 of those touchdowns, tying the school's season record, while setting a new one with 1,208 receiving yards. The duo burned Arizona for a 62-yard touchdown in their third game together last season and could cause trouble for ASU's questionable secondary. Additionally.
Former Washington Husky Kendyl Taylor moved to running back full-time this season after splitting out at wide receiver part time a year ago. Behind an offensive line that returns four starters, including three with Big Sky Conference honors in their careers, Taylor could cause problems after having played in the Pac-12 earlier in his college career.
On the opposite side of the ball, Northern Arizona struggled often last year and returns a fairly young defense. One of the few experienced seniors on the defense is linebacker Jake Thomas. Thomas is the team's leading returner in tackles, finishing third last year, and topped the team in sacks with 4.5.
Returning to the defensive line after redshirting due to a shoulder injury, senior Siupeli Anau adds another element to the team's pass rush and could have an impact. Following an up and down freshman year, Maurice Davison is being relied on as the team's top corner. Listed at 5-foot-9, Davison was passed up by a few FBS schools in part because of his size, but Northern Arizona put him into the starting lineup a year ago to give him experience ahead of his new role as a sophomore.
HoS: Coming into 2016, which position is the greatest strength for the Lumberjacks and which do you think has the most question marks?
CB: Similar to Arizona State, Northern Arizona produced elite passing numbers while struggling to stop the pass itself in 2015. Each remains the same in 2016, with the Lumberjacks passing offense only growing stronger than it was a year ago. Utah grad transfer Delshawn McClellon is set to start in the slot for the Lumberjacks, while former Oklahoma receiver Dallis Todd is running behind Butler on the outside.
Northern Arizona is pretty comfortable with around six different receivers should it need to dig that far. It would be a mild surprise if the Lumberjacks can't move the ball with some success against Arizona State as long as it can keep Cookus upright. One of the only questions Northern Arizona has on offense is right tackle, where sophomore Cole Habib and senior Dylan LaFrenz have rotated in camp. Habib spent time in the rotation last year while LaFrenz missed the season with a knee injury.
Meanwhile, Northern Arizona's secondary probably doesn't have a sure thing at any of its four or five positions. While Davison takes over the role as the team's top corner, Andrew Gose has spent camp on the opposite side. Gose converted to corner from wide receiver during last season and saw limited time while providing depth for the team.
Many of the team's other potential corners are underclassmen with many on the depth chart lacking any college experience at all. At safety, junior Wes Sutton is expected to start after moving from cornerback. While he has looked good throughout camp, Sutton simply hasn't played the position much yet. Sophomores Kam'ron Johnson and Cole Sterns will also see playing time at safety and nickel after playing throughout last year.
HoS: What aspect of the game do you expect NAU to give the Sun Devils the most trouble?
CB: Covering Butler should be the most interesting aspect of the game for the Sun Devils, as he will create problems. Standing 6-4, he regularly beats double teams in the Big Sky Conference and may require the same on Saturday if Cookus has time in the pocket. Even if Butler can be slowed down, the attention he draws should open up the field for Taylor, McClellon and Elijah Marks, who scored six touchdowns himself last year.
The Lumberjacks have enough depth on offense to consistently have fresh threats on the field and shouldn't be afraid to take some shots in a game they are expected to lose. As I said above, the Lumberjacks should be able to move the ball on the Sun Devils and can probably keep the game close if the defense has any kind of success.
HoS: What is your prediction for Saturday's contest?
CB: Even with Arizona State's struggles on defensive and Northern Arizona's offensive firepower, it is pretty hard to outright expect an upset. While they undoubtedly would like to win, the Lumberjacks would probably be happy to keep the game close into the fourth quarter.
Last year, the Lumberjacks trailed the Wildcats 14-13 after Cookus hit Butler for a touchdown early in the second quarter. However, three consecutive three-and-outs, coupled with four consecutive scores for Arizona, put the game well out of reach. While allowing 77 points most likely won't happen again, Northern Arizona's defense shouldn't be expected to hold up throughout the game. Arizona State winning 42-24 seems to be somewhere around the right score.