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ASU Football Opponent Primer: Northern Arizona Lumberjacks

In-state matchup week one

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 23 Northern Arizona at Cal Poly Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

ASU’s 2022 Football Schedule

9/1: vs. NAU

9/10: @ #12 Oklahoma State

9/17: vs. Eastern Michigan

9/24: vs. #7 Utah

10/1: @ #14 USC

10/8: vs. Washington

10/22: @ Stanford

10/29: @ Colorado

11/5: vs. UCLA

11/12: @ Washington State

11/19: vs. Oregon State

11/25: @ Arizona

Sizing Up NAU

The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks are coming into 2022 off a 5-6 season last year, highlighted by the program’s third ever victory over an FBS opponent when they toppled Arizona 21-19 in week three.

Predicted to finish seventh in the Big Sky Conference by both the coaches and media polls, the Lumberjacks expectations aren’t of a top-tier FCS school. While NAU’s defense remained a calling card for third-year head coach Chris Ball through much of the season, the former Memphis defensive coordinator couldn’t get in touch on the offensive side, with the Lumberjacks ranking 68th in FCS in points per game.

However, all Big Sky preseason first-team running back Kevin Daniels is among nine returning starters for NAU offensively which warrants improvement, not to mention reinforcements from the transfer portal in three-star tackle Noah Nelson and deep-threat Tray Pettway from UMass. Add in three-star freshman quarterback Angel Flores and the recipe for points could be on the menu in for the Lumberjacks in Tempe.

Flipping the script from last season, it’s the defense that could see some trouble with roster turnover. While do-it-all senior defensive back Morgan Vest and his five interceptions in 2021 are back, NAU lost two starters in the secondary, and with the Kwete brothers, Cosmas and Eloi, being the only true threats on the edge, the defense simply doesn’t have the depth to keep up with the talent of quality offenses.

Key Returners

As mentioned previously, NAU running back Kevin Daniels was the lone bright spot on the Lumberjack’s anemic offense last year, as he racked up 1,146 yards on the ground and found paydirt seven times. He should be the focal point of this offense that features eight returners and get force-fed against the Sun Devils.

Defensive back Morgan Vest was this team’s Swiss army knife in 2021, leading the squad in both tackles and interceptions. Eloi and Cosmas Kwete were forces on the defensive line last year and their six combined sacks last year should increase, especially with the departure of Carson Taylor.

Key Newcomers

Coach Ball hopes he has found a solution to a dreadful offense last year by bringing in a new signal-caller alongside his dynamic running back. Three-star quarterback Angel Flores from nearby Casa Grande comes into NAU having led Casa Grande High School to the Arizona 4A state championship last year in undefeated fashion by throwing for 2,671 yards while rushing for 1,292 more, while tossing 26 touchdowns (19 more with his feet) to just four interceptions.

This kid can ball, folks.

And he’s got a new blindside blocker to help him out. Tackle Noah Nelson transferred into NAU from Oklahoma over the summer, the 6-foot-8 pass-protector throws his 295-pound frame around at an impressive rate. As a former recruiting target of Herm Edwards, Nelson’s division-one talent is surely something for the Sun Devils to monitor.

Wide receiver Tray Pettway also makes his way to Flagstaff by way of UMass following a 2021 campaign where he reeled in 17 catches for 217 yards in his sophomore season. His quick feet and down-field playmaking could be key to NAU’s offensive scheme.

ASU’s Path To Victory

The 2022 Sun Devils are presumed to not be on the level of ineptitude that was 2021 Arizona, despite the exodus of talent from Tempe over the offseason. NAU surrendered 439 yards per game last year, and with half of their defensive starters from last year out of town, dual-threat quarterback Emory Jones should be able to take advantage of a unit still finding its footing and use his big-time experience to keep the offense cool and collected.

Another Sun Devil debutant will look to shine on September 1st as well in Wyoming transfer Xazavian Valladay who should give himself a good building block to match his 1,000 yards of rushing in 2021. If Valladay is going, it’s lights out for NAU’s victory hopes.

And even if he isn’t, Emory Jones loves to use his feet and he can really rack up yardage on broken plays.

NAU’s Path To Victory

There’s little doubt that Kevin Daniels will get the ball 30-plus times in this contest. How ASU’s defense responds to this run-happy offense will determine how this game plays out.

The offense is familiar with each other, with only quarterback and tackle featuring newcomers. While the Sun Devils ranked 33rd in the FBS in rushing defense last year, the loss of nearly the entire defense makes predicting their output tough. Chris Ball has the experience to take advantage of that possible lack of cohesion.

If Morgan Vest can don his superman cape on defense and keep Vallalday out of the second level, while the Kwete brothers keep Jones contained in the pocket and force him to throw, NAU has a chance to limit ASU’s offense.