With 15 wide receivers listed on the roster, 10 still in their freshman year, Northern Arizona’s depth at the position is unmatched compared to recent years.
“It’s pretty remarkable to see a group of freshmen that can come in and produce and actually show that they can retain information as well as they do while we are watching film,” said senior Ify Umodu, who returns after redshirting last season. “We will see if they are able to apply it into this first game.”
Junior Alex Holmes may be the lone wide receiver who caught a pass last season that returns this year, having finished the year with 40 catches for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Umodu, who missed last season and ended up redshirting to save his final year of eligibility, caught 35 passes for 481 yards and six touchdowns in 2012. The senior’s return gives the Lumberjacks a clear red zone threat.
Dejzon Walker caught 24 passes for 361 yards last year, but remains sidelined and probably won’t return this season, mirroring Umodu’s path set last season. At tight end, the Lumberjacks also return Beau Gardner and Patrick Baldenegro, who caught passes last season, though top tight end R.J. Rickert looks to be in a similar situation to Walker as the Lumberjacks enter the season.
In terms of which freshmen will play and contribute immediately, Hunter Burton has run with the first team throughout camp and seems set to play a role in the offense after redshirting last year. True freshmen Emmanuel Butler, Bryant O’Georgia, Dan Galindo and Elijah Marks all have run with the first and second offense during the summer. Even with Walker out to open up a spot, playing time might be tight for the glut of freshmen.
“Coach said he is only bringing six receivers to travel,” Butler said. “One going down, it opened up another spot for us.”
Even though the team needed help at the position following the graduation of Nick Cole and Jesse Brantley, Butler said he knew it would require some work to crack the rotation.
“Right away Coach made it clear that playing time is earned, not given,” Butler said. “So coming in, I just tried to work hard.”
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O’Georgia’s feelings mirrored Butler’s, knowing that as a freshman the odds were against them truly standing out in the offense.
“Coming in here and working my butt off, it seems I am going to get more playing time than I thought,” O’Georgia said.
For starting quarterback Kyren Poe, the depth at wide receiver gives the team options on who can fill in the production lost by Cole, Brantley and even running back Zach Bauman.
“They are good enough to play right now. They didn’t take any time to develop, they came in with crisp routes,” Poe said. “Just get them to learn the playbook a little bit better, but they are moving along pretty quickly.”
Poe added that the passing game doesn’t necessarily feel more pressure to produce with Bauman no longer in the backfield, but it is understood that the players available can be used to offset the loss.
Getting Umodu back may be Northern Arizona’s greatest addition to the offense thanks to his ability near the goal line. Two years ago, the Lumberjacks made a habit of running Umodu on a slant when only a few yards out, which led to his six scores in 2012.
Umodu made it clear he was more than ready to be back on the field.
“I counted down every day last year to this game, so every day was a great learning experience for me,” Umodu said. “I learned a lot sitting out watching from a different perspective than playing.”