Less than 48 hours after Lisa Campos, vice president for intercollegiate athletics, announced a coaching change would be made after the 2017 season, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks were back on the Walkup Skydome field for practice.
While there’s no game to turn its attention to directly this week, head coach Jerome Souers reiterated the team’s goals have not changed despite his impending exit, announced with still nine games remaining in the regular season.
“Until it changes, I am still the head football coach here and still plan on doing everything that we have been doing -- only better,” said Souers, who has been at Northern Arizona since his hiring in 1998, through four different presidents and three athletic directors. “We have nine games left to play, and we plan to be competitive in every one of them.”
Souers acknowledged the news likely came as a shock to his players and coaching staff when the two groups were informed, as it has to those outside the program, given the timing. The news first began to leak out Monday afternoon, first reported by Brad Cesmat of Sports360AZ.com on Twitter ahead of the school’s quick press conference.
However, the head coach vowed the team would not lose focus on its goals for the season, his 20th and final with the Lumberjacks, calling the members of the program resilient people.
“Coaches are still in place and we are functioning as we have been,” Souers said. “It is important to me that remains the same, we continue to function the way we have. ... We are going to focus and control ourselves in the time that we have left. Until that day comes, we are going to continue to practice and play the way we have been.”
Quarterback Case Cookus elected to say little on the news, preferring to focus on the Lumberjacks' next game, the Big Sky Conference opener at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo on Sept. 23.
“Yeah, it was a shock, but right now we are not worried about that. We are worried about Cal Poly, so that’s all we are kind of worried about right now,” Cookus said. “Conference hasn’t even started yet, there’s a lot of season left. Cal Poly is a good team, a triple option team that will be a good test for our defense.”
With the school hoping to keep its players’ minds off of the potential distraction, as they now sit with the knowledge that they might be led by an entirely new coaching staff in three months, Souers said the student-athlete experience allows for young adults to learn how to handle adversity.
"Some of the adversity is by plan -- as we do in practice and in the weight room -- some of the adversity comes in the form of competition,” Souers said. “Other adversity comes in the form of injuries, or in this case, something that is beyond their control. The best approach is always keep your focus and your eyes on the things you can control.”
Lost in the unexpected announcement to begin the week was the status of Northern Arizona’s All-American receiver Emmanuel Butler.
Lying on the ground in pain early in the first quarter of Saturday’s loss to Western Illinois, Butler’s shoulder injury appears to be as serious as first feared based on his reaction to the injury. While no definite plans were made as of Wednesday afternoon, Souers said a decision could be coming soon.
“Decisions are being made probably as we speak,” Souers said. “And if it happens, it might happen as quickly as tomorrow if the decision to go with the surgery is the decision he chooses.”
Butler entered the season 597 yards and three touchdown receptions shy of Northern Arizona’s school records. With just one game against Arizona and roughly five minutes of play against Western Illinois, Butler caught six passes for 95 yards.
Butler, as well as defensive lineman Jalen Goss and cornerback Khalil Dorsey, were not present for Wednesday’s practice. Northern Arizona remained hopeful Goss and Dorsey would not be facing as extended an absence as Butler appears to be.