NAU spring football: Offensive preview

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — For the first time in four years, the Northern Arizona football team will go into spring practices without running back Zach Bauman, who finished his college career last season as the Lumberjacks’ all-time leading rusher and one of the best players in NAU history.

Going into the 2014 season, the Lumberjacks also lose receivers Jesse Brantley and Nick Cole, tight end Drew Emanuel, and offensive tackle Kyle Walker.

The Lumberjacks lose nearly 1,800 yards of total offense in 2013 from Bauman, who also led the team in receptions last year. Six players return to form an experienced receiving core, led by senior Dejzon Walker and junior Alex Holmes.

"The motivation this year is to prove everybody wrong," Walker said. "We want to prove everyone in the conference and the nation that we’re the best receiving core out there and that we’re going to work our tails off to get to where we want to be at the end of the season," Walker said.

Also returning are seniors R.J. Rickert and Beau Gardner, and sophomore Patrick Baldenegro.

"Next season, having the experienced guys coming back is going to put a lot of pressure on the defense," Holmes said. "It’s going to spread the game out a lot more and make it harder on the defense."

Holmes finished second on the team with 40 catches for a total of 329 yards, and three receiving touchdowns.

"I think the relationship with Kyren (Poe) going forward, building the passing game and our work ethic in the offseason will be the biggest things that will help us next season," Holmes said.

"It’s always great for a quarterback to have some experienced receivers, and they’re all quarterback friendly," Poe added. "They know where to put themselves for me to make a safe throw. It’s reassuring as a quarterback to see guys like that line up on every play and know that I have weapons on the perimeter and the inside."

Under center, Poe will be the leading candidate to start the season, but needs to improve in the spring to prove head coach Jerome Souers he deserves the job.

Poe played in 11 of 12 games last year, compiling over 1,600 yards through the air on 60 percent passing and six touchdowns. His biggest competition in the spring will come from senior Chase Cartwright, who played in six games and threw for 753 yards and eight touchdowns.

When it comes to Bauman’s replacement, junior Casey Jahn should be in line for the starting gig. In his first two seasons, Jahn has rushed for more than 500 yards and five touchdowns. He rushed for a career-high 144 yards against Idaho State in 2012 and recorded a season-high 106 yards and one score against North Dakota in 2013.

Walker and the rest of the receivers know that with Bauman gone, that puts a heavy load on them during the season.

"The receivers are going to have a big role this year," Walker said. "With Zach being the leading rusher and him being gone, that’s big shoes to fill and that’s going to take all the receivers to step up and do our part and contribute."

Walker is undoubtedly the leader of the group, but knows even he needs to elevate his game for the team to improve. He finished 2013 with 24 receptions for 361 yards and two touchdowns.

"Overall, I just need to work on the details," Walker said. "Whether it’s third down or first down, I just need to be a very detailed player and take every down seriously and just do everything on my part to win at my position and make things easier for the quarterback."

On the offensive line, the team loses senior Kyle Walker to graduation. The line will be led by senior Roy Garcia. Poe likes how the team has grown from the start of last season to now with most of the players returning.

"I feel we had a lot of young guys, myself included, and we started to come along with the speed of the game and by the end of the year we started to click," Poe said. "I feel that’s a credit to our coaching staff for preparing us for each game."

A new look on the sideline for NAU will be the addition of offensive line coach Adam Stenavich. The former NFL Player enters his first season with NAU after spending the past two seasons with the University of Michigan as a graduate assistant.

The Lumberjacks finished 9-3 last season, 7-1 in the Big Sky Conference and 5-0 at home in the regular season. NAU fell to South Dakota State in its first playoff appearance in 10 years.