With four starters graduated from Northern Arizona’s secondary, just junior cornerback Marcus Alford returns to a unit that led the Big Sky Conference in passing defense and pass defense efficiency.
While the cornerback position remains steady, Northern Arizona has little returning to its three other secondary spots. Lucky Dozier, Blair Wishom and Mike Dosen are all gone for the Lumberjacks’ defense of a year ago. Together, the three combined five of Northern Arizona’s 14 interceptions, added 18 pass breakups and all finished among the team’s top seven tackles.
Replacing Anders Battle at corner comes as an easier task with a pair of experienced seniors alongside Alford. But the loss of Dozier and Wishom will be the bigger challenge at safety, and Dosen’s nickelback position will be filled by a pair of players with limited in-game experience.
After Dozier and Wishom started nearly every game since transferring into the school before the 2012 season, very little experience returns at safety. Possibly still the most open position in terms of who could end up with the most playing time come November, seniors Robert Watson and Shawn Sharkey have been with the first team in practices.
Watson played in 10 games as a freshman in 2011 and finished the year with 29 tackles. Playing behind Dozier and Wishom limited him to 11 games over the past two seasons with five tackles.
Sharkey transferred from Snow College before last season and appeared in 11 games while making two tackles.
With Dozier and Wishom earning All-Big Sky accolades during their two seasons, Sharkey said those filling the safety spots this season know how big their roles are in limiting a potential drop off from the defense’s performance.
“The seniors before us, they showed us a lot and were phenomenal players,” Sharkey said. “The pressure is high, but we are stepping up to the challenge as best as we can. Everybody is questioning if we are going to be good. We are just taking it day by day, and we are just going to show everybody when the time comes.”
Besides Watson and Sharkey, none of the other safeties on the roster have played in a game for Northern Arizona. Ronnie Manning Jr., Devon McPeek and Jonathan Lyles all redshirted during their freshman season.
Juniors Eddie Horn and Darius Lewis have seen practice time with the second unit, but each enters his first year in the program after transferring in this season.
One of the more interesting spots to fill comes at the nickelback position of Northern Arizona’s 4-2 defense. While the spot was filled by Mike Dosen, who fit the profile of a defensive back, the Lumberjacks’ two top candidates to see time at the spot offer contrasting skill sets.
Sophomore Delvin Batiste, who appeared in 11 games last season, and redshirt freshman Jabari Marshall have alternated with the first team at the position. Batiste is listed as a cornerback on the team’s roster and stands at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, but his physicality allowed for Northern Arizona to move him inside to nickel. Marshall has been listed at linebacker, which he played in high school, while standing 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds.
Defensive coordinator Andy Thompson said the two offer varying benefits on the field while being able to handle the position all-around.
“That’s a real critical position for us because you are able to play man and zone instead of a true big linebacker that can’t cover a slot receiver,” Thompson said.
Batiste allows Northern Arizona to place a third corner on the field to trail along with the potential slot receivers that teams like Eastern Washington or North Dakota throw onto the field. Marshall gives the team more of a 4-3 look on defense while his coverage skills are good enough to allow him to still drop back as needed.
Thompson added that the two having the skills to drop back or come up on the run should allow Northern Arizona the ability to better disguise its defense than when a true linebacker is on the field.
While Batiste fits more of the mold that Dosen was in the position, Marshall’s move to the spot came more so though his athleticism. Thompson said it was not the original plan to move Marshall from a true linebacker spot when he was recruited, but through his development as he redshirted, it worked out well.