San Diego State football will open its season this Saturday at 4 p.m. at Qualcomm Stadium against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks. For an insider perspective into NAU football, Mountain West Connection did a Q&A session with Mitch Strohman, the "Voice of the Lumberjacks."
This will be Strohman's 15th year doing TV and radio play-by-play for NAU football and basketball on the Lumberjack Television/Radio Network (NAU TV). NAU TV distributes these games to Fox Sports Arizona and Fox College Sports. Strohman also hosts a monthly NAU-sports show called "The Score," which airs on Fox Sports San Diego and Fox College Sports.
So if you want an NAU football expert, here he is.
1. NAU is part of probably the best FCS conference in the Big Sky, and is arguably one of the best FCS teams (preseason No. 23). However, the Lumberjacks haven't had much luck against FBS teams in their non-conference slates. How can NAU get over that hump and knock off an FBS team?
Well first of all, I agree with you in saying the Big Sky is arguably the best FCS conference. The Sky placed four teams in the FCS Playoffs last year and has four teams in the preseason top-25, including two teams in the top five (#1 Eastern Washington and #5 Montana). Now, while it's true the NAU Lumberjacks haven't had much luck against FBS teams over the years, the Lumberjacks do in fact have a recent win against a team from the "big boy" ranks. Two years ago in 2012, NAU beat UNLV in Las Vegas 17-14. That win came just one week after NAU suffered a 63-6 beatdown at ASU in Todd Graham's debut as Sun Devil Head Coach. Beating the Rebels the next week, sparked an eight-game winning streak that began a turnaround in Lumberjack football that continues to this day.
2. NAU's wide receiving corps is young but very impressive, with three freshman that ranked among the top 30 wide receivers in Arizona. Who will be the stars of this corps and what will they bring to the offense?
Please get your binoculars out at Qualcomm this Saturday and look for the number 8, as in wide receivers number 8 and number 88 for the Lumberjacks! Number 8 is senior Ify Umodu (YOU-mow-doo) and number 88 is true freshman Emmanuel Butler. Umodu is a SoCal product from South Hills High School in Covina, California. Butler is an Arizonan from state champion Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix. Butler turns 18-years-old tomorrow (Wednesday the 27th). One look at these two on the field and you'll understand what I'm talking about. Umodu is 6-3 and 215 muscle packed pounds. Butler also is 6-3 and he tips the scale at 210. These guys are not only big in size, they're both fast, strong, and outstanding route runners with great hands. Umodu missed all of last season with an injury, but he's 100% healthy and ready to show he's big time material. His athleticism is off the charts. He actually played for the Lumberjack basketball team after the football season in 2010. Butler has all of the tools to become one of the best pass catchers in the FCS down the road. When these two are on the field, they should command a lot of attention from the defense. P.S. Also watch number 81, true freshman Bryant O'Georgia from Phoenix. He can flat out fly.
3. The Lumberjack defense was top-notch last year. Fewest first downs per game allowed in the Big Sky (17.7); lowest opponent third-down conversion rate in the Big Sky (34.9 percent); most defensive touchdowns in the FCS last year with eight. The team returns all-conference linebacker Austin Hasquet, but loses a significant number of players in the secondary and on the D-line. How will this year's defense compare to last year's?
No question the NAU defense has, well, a lot of questions to answer in 2014. Losing eight starters and nine of the top ten tacklers (Rreturning MLB Austin Hasquet was NAU's top take down artist last season), is a lot to replace in a single year for any defense. The good news is last season's number-two's had a lot of significant playing time for Defensive Coordinator Andy Thompson. That plus an outstanding crop of both freshmen and transfers give plenty of reasons to believe the NAU defense may be reloading, instead of rebuilding from the ground up. The Lumberjacks' linebackers (including All Big Sky/Academic All American Austin Hasquet) look rock solid going into the 2014 season.
4. NAU loses running back Zach Bauman and will be without its offensive leader for the first time in four years--a big loss. How will NAU try to replace him? Will junior Casey Jahn fill the role immediately?
It will be running back somewhat by committee. Junior Casey Jahn (yawn), who was the first Arizona high school runner to break the 7,000 yard mark, will be the primary ball carrier. Redshirt freshman Corbin Jountti (JUN-tee) from Bakersfield, California and true freshman Marquice Paige will see the ball as well. Replacing one of the greatest running backs in Big Sky Conference history in Zach Bauman is challenging (THAT's being diplomatic!). However, those three guys running behind what could be one of the best offensive lines in the Big Sky, makes me feel like there are good yards to be gained on the ground this season.
5. With Bauman in the backfield, junior quarterback Kyren Poe played sort of a game manager role last year, completing just 163 passes for 1,602 yards. Will he have an expanded role this year? Or will NAU run a tandem-QB system with senior quarterback Chase Cartwright? Just talk a little about the QB situation.
Junior Kyren Poe is the number one quarterback for NAU. Offensive Coordinator Rich Scangarello has given Poe the keys to the Lumberjack offense and has told him it's his car to drive. With plenty of targets to throw to (see #2 above) and Poe's ability to move the pocket and extend the play when needed, I expect to see the NAU air attack be more aggressive this season. By the by, NAU's running backs also are very good at catching the ball. Last season, running back Zach Bauman was the Lumberjacks' top receiver with 44 catches!
6. Alright, short ones now. Team's biggest strength?
In a word, camaraderie. This team is tight and has some powerful chemistry. Ask any coach whose team is not tight on and off the field just how much of a negative impact that has and you'll understand why strong camaraderie is vital to success.
7. Team's biggest weakness?
In a word, inexperience. 46 new players on the roster, perhaps more than half of those expected to play and some of those to play a lot. 'Nuff said.
8. Team's X-factor?
In two words, coaching staff. Jerome Souers is in his 17th year as Head Coach. His entire coaching staff is back except for two he let go after last year. The two new assistants are former NFL players (one was 1st Team All Big Ten and the other was 1st Team All Pac-10!). Souers' other assistant coaches are entering their 10th, 9th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd seasons with the Lumberjacks. Experience counts.
9. What will be the most difficult aspect of playing SDSU?
As is always the case when playing the big boys, scholarships. 85 scholarships versus 63 scholarships. Numbers matter.
10. Game prediction
Well of course, an NAU upset in a close game!