With an average of 15.3 points allowed and 10 takeaways in the past three games, Northern Arizona’ defense continues to play a crucial part of the Lumberjacks’ three-game win streak since the bye week.
Currently listing three seniors on the two-deep depth chart, with mostly juniors recording starts through the first half of the season, the defense quickly bounced back after a tough start against Arizona and Western Illinois.
Despite throwing off their averages after allowing 595 yards and 62 points to the Wildcats in the season opener, Northern Arizona ranks in the top five of the conference in nearly every defensive category. The lone outlier remains its rushing yards allowed, with the Lumberjacks sitting 10th in the Big Sky at 204.6 yards per game -- the 506 conceded against Arizona account for 44 percent of opponent’s yards on the ground this season.
“It was just really us stepping up as a unit,” linebacker Byron Evans said of the upward trends. “We knew we weren't playing to our best potential as a defense, and we just thought why not be us? Why not go undefeated because of us? We just stepped up and it was necessary.”
Evans, one of the team’s few seniors on the defense, leads the team in tackles at 37, followed closely by the team’s two starting safeties, juniors Wes Sutton (34) and Kam’ron Johnson (33). Of the team’s top 10 tacklers, only five started games before this season, with no one in the group standing as a full-time starter in any previous season.
Johnson entered Northern Arizona from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, where he played with multiple future Division I football players, including one of the nation’s best receivers in Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk.
After playing in all 22 games during the first two years of his college career, Johnson finally took over a starting role this season as he entered his junior year.
“Coming in young, you come in a little big-headed. You get here and you realize it is not as sweet as you thought it would be. You think you can come in and get a starting spot right away and it doesn't happen,” Johnson said. “The way you have to work changes, the mindset you have changes, the things you have to learn change. Really, it’s just growing up as a person and growing up as a football player with my IQ getting better.”
Admitting he needed to mature as a person and a player through the past two seasons, Johnson is among a large group of Lumberjacks recruited together who have finally transitioned into key roles. Five members of the 2015 recruiting class currently play key roles on the defense, as well as three apiece from 2014 and 2016.
“Maurice Davison, me and him kind of clicked right when we got here. Me and him set out a goal that we both wanted to be the best, we both felt we could be one of the best on the team,” Johnson said of his fellow 2015 recruit classmate. “At this point, I have grown, and watching him I can tell he has grown a lot. The way we take on roles for this team, as far as leadership, really changed. Definitely both of us have matured a lot.”
Johnson picked off passes in three straight games -- against Western Illinois, Cal Poly and Northern Colorado -- and Northern Arizona has intercepted nine of the 146 passes it has seen this year.
After picking off just eight of 415 passes a year ago, and forcing 19 turnovers in total, the Lumberjacks' rates have taken a jump up along with much of the rest of the defense’s numbers.
“Our coach definitely trusts us and we trust him. He puts us in spots to make plays,” Johnson said. “We follow the scheme, we have a great week of preparation and we stress getting a certain amount of takeaways throughout the week. When you are constantly doing something over and over again, it eventually becomes a habit, and that's what it is becoming now.”
Aided by the consistent interceptions, Northern Arizona currently sits 20th in the nation in pass efficiency defense with a 112.0 rating and 40th in the nation with 195.2 passing yards allowed per game. Finishing last season at a 126.4 rating and 259.7 yards, the team’s defense has seen the greatest jump in the pass game.
Evans said the changes truly began during the summer as opposed to in recent weeks, while the team’s communication has been on the rise at the same time.
“Honestly, it was the summer preparation we put into it. Everybody was on the same page. Every time you came into work, we all wanted the same goal and that was a championship. I feel like people are really on that page right now,” Evans said. “I feel like our communication is so much better. You will see us on game days just talking. Everything we see, we talk about and from that, we can only go up.”
SUCCESS ON DISPLAY
Holding the previously top-10 ranked Illinois State Redbirds to just 286 yards and 3 of 16 on third-down conversions, Northern Arizona’s defense came through in its biggest opportunity yet.
The Lumberjacks added a dime package to the defensive plan against the Redbirds, leaving just three down linemen on the field, and stifled Illinois State throughout Saturday’s game.
With six defensive backs on the field, the group came through with much of the production.
Nickelback Josh Clarke led the team in tackles with 11 against the Redbirds, including three for a loss as well as a sack. Johnson finished second with eight tackles, while fellow safety Wes Sutton added seven tackles, and Davison led the team with three passes defended and an interception in a game head coach Jerome Souers called the best of the junior cornerback’s college career.
“We have five DBs on the field the majority of the time, so we look at it as we have the most players on the field at one time -- and so we kind of just leave everything up to us,” Johnson said of the team’s base nickel defense. “When we get six guys out there, we are all in the same meeting room, we are all on the same page, the communication is great. It just kind of turns into us having a regular conversation about football, literally on the field. It just makes it easy when you are comfortable on the field.”