Some of the top highlights from the first day of Northern Arizona football fall camp didn’t come from the practice session Wednesday morning.
Northern Arizona placed a pair of players on FCS preseason watchlists, with quarterback Case Cookus landing on the Walter Payton Award watchlist and punter DJ Arnson making the inaugural punter of the year preseason watchlist.
Cookus making the roll call isn’t surprising considering that, when healthy, he has been one of the top QBs in the FCS. Cookus joins three others from the Big Sky Conference on the list and Arnson is also joined by three other Big Sky punters.
Arnson showed his value for special teams with 15 punts pinned inside the 20-yard line.
Coincidentally, Cookus looked more and more like his old self at Wednesday’s practice -- connecting on clean passes to his receivers on varying routes.
The highlight of the day on offense came when Cookus found wide receiver Brandon Porter on a vertical route down the middle of the field for a big gain just past a pair of defensive backs. Cookus overthrew Porter, but the wideout extended for a one-handed snag.
“We came out here with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of good carryover from what we got done in the spring. I was impressed, really impressed,” Lumberjacks head coach Chris Ball said. “We still got a lot of things to do and a lot of work to get done. … It’s still early and we are just trying to get a good evaluation of everybody, and obviously Case looked good today running the offense. I was really impressed with the running backs and the way they handled themselves.”
On the other side, the first-year head coach liked what he saw out of a fairly inexperienced secondary.
“It will change day to day but I was impressed by most of it,” Ball said. “ … Those guys have done a great job and (Anthony) Sweeney has done a great job. He keeps getting better, and then we got guys like Jalen Cook and Nate Perkins. All of them are competing for some playing time, so I’m very, very impressed with what they are doing.”
Safety Anthony Sweeney and corner Khalil Dorsey are the only returners with any meaningful playing time under their belts, leaving room for competition at the other spots in the defensive backfield.
Between Elijah Orr, Cook and Perkins, Northern Arizona has options in the backfield. Perkins was listed as a corner last season, but was converted to safety by the new coaching staff. Ball said the choice to move the 6-foot-3-inch Perkins was made to better utilize his size and athleticism at safety.
Carson Taylor made more of the big plays he made during the spring at the edge rusher spot in Ball’s new 3-4 defense. He put together a string of impressive plays off the edge, starting with a stuffed run in the backfield and then a sack on Keondre Wudtee.
Quarterback Daniel Bridge-Gadd -- who started five games last season, including an upset win over then No. 6 Weber State, after transferring from Washington -- is no longer on the roster.
The Paradise Valley High School product was held out of participation during the spring to give him time to nurse a torn ACL and to address academic concerns he had at the time.
It seems unlikely that Bridge-Gadd will continue to be with the program, especially considering that Northern Arizona made a move in the the spring to acquire Oklahoma State transfer QB Keondre Wudtee.
Local product Ty Furr is officially on the Northern Arizona roster as a defensive back.
Furr was Coconino High School's starting quarterback the past two seasons, leading a resurgent Panthers squad a year ago. He joins Northern Arizona as a walk-on and as the only Flagstaff-based player on the roster.