With four starters graduated from Northern Arizona’s secondary, just junior Marcus Alford returns to a unit that led the Big Sky Conference in passing defense and pass defense efficiency.
At cornerback, Anders Battle is gone from the Lumberjacks’ defense of a year ago. Battle, who was an All-Big Sky First Team selection for his final two years, finished sixth on the team in tackles with 51 and added two interceptions and a team-high 10 pass breakups.
However, replacing Battle at corner comes as an easier task than the other three holes in the secondary thanks to a pair of experienced seniors stepping in next to Alford, who returns as the top corner for the Lumberjacks after having a breakout sophomore season. With 11 starts in 12 games, Alford is the second-leading tackler to return after totaling 26 last season. The junior scored three times, one on an interception, another on a fumble recovery and a third on his game-winning kick return against Cal Poly.
Head coach Jerome Souers said the team is plenty comfortable with Alford taking over as the lead corner, generally defending the wide side of the field.
“Last year, he tended to go against a lot of the stronger receivers and really held his own,” Souers said.
Despite the strong numbers, which included an All-Big Sky Honorable Mention, Alford admitted he didn’t feel fully healthy at times last season, but said he is ready to take on the role as the leader of the secondary.
“I want to be a shutdown corner this year,” Alford said. “A lot of people don’t know, last season I didn’t really play healthy the entire season. My hamstring was bothering me; that’s why I could only kick return in two games.”
Alford’s role in the return game seems yet to be determined. He said he would like to be kick returning in every game and has been back to return during the fall camp. Depending on who else is available at other positions, Northern Arizona could elect not to have its lead corner returning every week in favor of players farther down the depth chart.
Alongside him, Northern Arizona brings back a pair of corners who spent the early part of their careers starting for the Lumberjacks.
Seniors Randy Hale Jr. and Blake Bailey combined to make 17 starts at corner during the 2011 season. Bailey finished the year third on the team with 43 tackles and Hale added 21 with an interception and five pass breakups.
Last season, the duo worked as the second pairing behind Alford and Battle to give the starters a break during games. Each recorded 16 tackles and Hale had a pair of interceptions against Northern Colorado, with one going back for a 51-yard touchdown. Souers said the way in which the team chose to rotate the four corners last season has paid off going into this year.
“Anders Battle is a tough guy to replace, but I do believe the guys that have stepped in and played behind Anders the whole time are good football players,” Souers said. “It was a great investment to play those guys the way that we did. Both of them have a bunch of experience and are really ready to have a breakout year.”
Behind the first three, Northern Arizona has an assortment of younger players working as depth. Freshman Mo White II, who redshirted last year, has worked with the second team in practices so far.
True freshmen Wes Sutton and Cole Sterns also appear to be in line for time at the position if needed and have paired on the third unit.