After nearly three months of instability and questions about the future, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks settled into their offseason routine this past week.
Eliminated from the FCS playoffs sooner than hoped, with a frustrating 41-10 loss to San Diego spoiling its final home game of the year, Northern Arizona’s attention moved to 2018, with head coach Jerome Souers and his staff settling back into their roles.
First and foremost, the team’s offices in the Walkup Skydome are mostly empty, with coaches back at work recruiting after an awkward period of time for the school.
“The recruiting process really starts in the spring and then in camp, so you had opportunities to really get to know a lot of the recruits, which we have," said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers. "So it was difficult during the months of September, October and the first couple weeks of November not knowing who would be the leader of this program.”
Souers said some recruits stepped back, waiting to see who the new head coach would be following the Sept. 11 announcement of the 20-year coach’s impending departure. With their former boss Lisa Campos departing the school without much warning, Souers and his staff were retained by Rita Cheng, the university's president, on Nov. 20.
With just three players on the two-deep of the defense listed as seniors, much of the Lumberjacks' recruiting focus will be on plugging the few holes they see on the depth chart. The graduation of center Blake Porter and left guard Tyler Shank will be the biggest loss to Northern Arizona’s roster -- the two were fixtures in the lineup for much of their four-year careers.
“I think because we started off with a good relationship with them, to know it is going to remain intact kind of reopened a lot of the attention we were receiving from student athletes,” Souers said of the need to reconnect with recruits. “Hopefully we won’t have lost anybody, but it is going to be a smaller class. We don’t have that many scholarships.”
Only a little more than 10 players were listed as seniors on Northern Arizona’s 2017 roster, with Souers stressing the need to find impact players with so few chances to do so.
However, the staff’s return helped prompt the commitment of a few players who could have left in a variety of ways. While the team losses receiver Elijah Marks to graduation, Souers said the belief is Emmanuel Butler will be back following shoulder surgery ending his first attempt at a senior year two games in.
Additionally, quarterback Case Cookus will enter his junior year of eligibility with four years of college completed and the potential to graduate transfer, but does not intend to do so.
“As of today, Case has made it clear to us that he intends to stay here and Emmanuel’s injury situation, with the time that he played and how much he missed, puts him well within the requirements that allow an extra year,” Souers said. “We anticipate both student-athletes being on the 2018 team.”
While Souers’ new contract isn’t finalized yet, and his current deal is due to expire Jan. 31, 2018, the expectation is it will be completed soon with the exact length still to be determined. With Cheng asking Souers and the staff to return amid the instability of the athletic department in the wake of Campos’ departure, the eventual new athletic director will work with Cheng in order to determine the long-term future of the program once hired.
In the meantime, Souers is currently evaluating himself and the coaching staff over the next few weeks as he mulls tweaks that need to be made to clean up some of the team’s issues from this past season.
“It’s a long and arduous task to look at everything we are doing, but I think it’s important to always look at how we did as coaches in regards to our preparation and the performances we measure,” Souers said. “Win-loss will tell you some things, but you’ve got to dig deeper to find out what led to success and where we came up short, and always ensure the next year you are addressing the deficiencies.”