FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Northern Arizona defense ranked seventh in the Big Sky against the pass last season, allowing more than 250 passing yards per game. With a year of experience, senior leadership and some key additions, the unit looks to be much improved in 2012.
The Lumberjacks took some licks in the secondary in 2011 but hope to benefit from the experience gained by playing a group that returns nine of the 10 players on the two-deep at the cornerback and safety positions.
“With the secondary position, the only way you are going to get better is to play,” said NAU coach Jerome Souers. “This particular group continues to grow up and improve and will only get better with each game. We return a lot of guys with experience. Our secondary has a good chance to be much better.”
That will start at the cornerback position, where junior Anders Battle and senior Devin Willis enter the Arizona State game as the starters.
“We have an experienced group this year,” said cornerback coach Charles Huff. “Leading the way is Anders Battle. He plays our boundry corner and started last year. He got better every week and has got better in the spring and fall. He is a player that pays attention to details and plays hard. I am expecting big things from him this year.”
Devin Willis, who joined the program late in fall camp last year, has had a great camp to take hold of the starting job.
“Devin Willis got here late last year and played sparingly,” said Huff. “He had a great spring and has had a great fall camp. He has been our best cover corner in fall camp. He is in great shape. He was not in great shape last year, but he stayed up here all summer and worked out. He has really looked good in camp.”
Randy Hale Jr. and Blake Bailey both have seen significant action as starters in their careers and will be valuable members of the unit.
“We will have a lot of depth with two starters from last year in Bailey and Hale,” said Huff. “Blake had over 400 reps last year, so we will have experience in the backup role. Randy Hale also started for us last year. We feel good about them. Marcus Alford is a redshirt freshman with a lot of speed. We have some depth and athleticism.”
Huff, who is in his second year with the program, also is excited about the development of the defensive line and its impact on the overall play of the defense via its pressure.
“It all starts up front, and any time you get good pressure, you can play a whole lot better pass defense,” said Huff. “It is what pass defense is all about.”
The whole secondary will benefit from a summer of workouts together that bonded the unit.
“To have good cornerbacks and have good communication with them is everything in coverage,” said senior safety Taylor Malenfant. “You have to know his job and do your job. When they do good, it takes a lot of pressure off the safeties. We developed a lot of trust this summer.”
Malenfant is part of a safety unit ready looking for similar improvement. He joins a trio of players competing at free safety, with the others being namesakes Taylor Patton and Taylor Julio.
“We call ourselves the Taylor Gang,” said Malenfant. “It is fun. When I first came to this program I met Taylor Julio and Patton, who was a walk-on at the time. Patton is day and night from when I got here. I never thought I would be battling with him. He has shown a lot to this program. Taylor Julio is the grandpa of the safeties. He is really smart with all the plays and formations.”
Junior-college transfer Lucky Dozier is expected to start at the strong safety spot with former Oregon transfer Mike Dosen, who will also play nickel.
“Lucky has brought a lot of speed and man technique and experience coming out of a junior college in California,” said Malenfant. “He has showed it this summer by making plays from his first day here. He is smart and very reliable.”
The overall depth of the unit will be showcased over the course of the season.
“We did not have the depth last year that we do this year,” said Malenfant. “We have more confidence in our second and third string throughout the roster. We are coming with a lot of heat. Everyone has been doing their jobs and performing. It has been a huge competition in camp all the way up to the ASU game.”