Spring football: Breaking down the defense

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Losing NAU’s all-time leading rusher, Zach Bauman, is one thing. When you lose eight starters on defense, it’s another. For head coach Jerome Souers and defensive coordinator Andy Thompson, that’s what they must face entering the 2014 season.

NAU loses eight players who started at least six games in 2013, four of whom started all 12.

The list includes Associated Press All-American Lucky Dozier, Anders Battle, Mike Dosen and Blair Wishom in the secondary, linebacker Ryan Reardon, and Tim Wilkinson, Steven Garcia and Chima Ike on the defensive line.

Battle and Dozier were also named FCS All-Americans by College Sports Madness.

The Lumberjacks ranked first in the Big Sky in first downs allowed (17.7) and opponents’ third-down conversions (34.9 percent). Not only was NAU’s defense stellar amongst the conference, it was doing work on the national scale, as it led the FCS in defensive touchdowns with eight.

NAU will be led by the man in the middle, senior linebacker Austin Hasquet, who had a team-high 91 tackles, in addition to three interceptions – one of which was a pick six. Hasquet, though, thinks he can get even better.

"Something I need to do is continue to improve on my pre-snap reads, get physical and play fast," Hasquet said.

Losing that many starters can seem rough, but Hasquet is hopeful the squad will continue its high level of play.

"It’s always tough when you lose a lot of starters especially on defense, but we have plenty of guys for next year," Hasquet said.  "I think they’re all going to step up and we’re not going to miss a beat from last season."

Junior Zach McDonnell will lead the guys up front after losing Wilkinson, Garcia and Ike, who combined for 12.5 of the team’s 21 sacks. They also combined for 99 tackles, 66 from Garcia which ranked third on the team.

"We’re trying to get our new guys to step up and learn our defense," McDonnell said. "We want to create depth so we can have guys playing that are fresh all the time and maintain a high level of intensity."

One thing the defense needs to improve on before the start of the season is its run defense. The Lumberjacks gave up nearly 158 yards rushing per game in 2013, ranking them seventh in the Big Sky.

"We need to focus on being physical in the run game, and being able to shut down our opponents," McDonnell said.  "We need to take pride in that."

As for the secondary, junior Marcus Alford is the lone returning starter. Alford started 11 of 12 games last season and finished with 26 total tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery, returning both for touchdowns. He hopes that last year’s seniors have taught him and the rest of the defense what it takes to be dominant again this year.

"They showed us how to do it, the blueprint for being great, doing the extra things that people might not see and I try to keep doing that," Alford said.

The quartet of Dozier, Battle, Dosen and Wishom led the conference the past two seasons in pass defense, allowing 190 yards a game in 2013. NAU gave up just 13 touchdowns through the air, second in the conference. The group combined for 226 tackles, seven picks and 28 pass breakups.

With the loss of so many great secondary players, Alford and senior Randy Hale Jr. will have to take on the leadership role.

"We have to find that leadership," Hale Jr. said. "We had good leaders last year, making everyone work hard, so the upperclassmen have to step up. If we can get on track, we’ll be good."

As for the coaching staff, T.J. Rushing joins NAU as the cornerbacks coach. Rushing helped Arizona State rank first in the Pac-12 in interceptions last season, as the assistant secondary coach.