While only a handful of starters graduated from Northern Arizona this past season, the Lumberjacks still found a way to put together a 21-player recruiting class, announced on Wednesday’s national signing day.
Led by six players on the offensive line, where the Lumberjacks lost long-time starters Blake Porter and Tyler Shank, Northern Arizona’s recruiting class ended up as a mix of high school and junior college players spread around Arizona and California.
“We have got young linemen in the program, but it is so difficult to project development in that position,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers, who added Northern Arizona has often been thin in those spots. “I really believe they will help make that position more competitive and will help bring the young guys along.”
Needing an immediate impact, Northern Arizona added four offensive linemen from junior colleges in Jasean Harrison, Mitchell Kay, Keenan Norris and Trevor Reinwald, as well as high-schoolers Brogan Heath and Jayden Lee.
An early enrollee, having committed at the early signing day period, Harrison stands to have a chance to play in the interior of the offensive line. Porter, the team’s center, and Shank, the left guard, leave a hole in the middle of the line. Kay and Lee also enter Northern Arizona listed as potential centers or guards, while the Lumberjacks listed Reinwald only as an offensive lineman and Norris as a tackle. Heath will not join the program for two years as he will first serve a mission.
A QUICK FIX
The heavy focus on junior college transfers grants Northern Arizona the opportunity to bring in more experienced potential replacements for the two players lost, rather than rely on 18-year-olds who have yet to develop physically.
“Our schedule has become so much more challenging, we don’t have any developmental opportunities on that schedule,” Souers said, as the Lumberjacks no longer book a game against a Division II opponent. “The guys have to come in and they have to be ready to play. We don’t have a JV team, we don’t have a freshman team.”
The Lumberjacks also added three tight ends, all coming directly from high schools. Joining early signees Bric Parmley and Jarek Schultz was Tate Speaker, who also won’t join the team for two years after serving a mission.
“We feel it is important that we don’t always have open sets, that we are able to put a three-man surface on the end of the line of scrimmage to run the football and protect the quarterback,” Souers said. “To be able to do that with not just one guy, but several guys, it will be an important part of our approach.”
The Lumberjacks also added another quarterback in Gino Campiotti, as well as running back Jacob Mpungi and another pair of receivers. Campiotti enters a quarterback depth chart emptied out again, with Stone Smartt transferring out of Northern Arizona and Gerrit Groenewold graduating.
With Cookus again the lone quarterback on the roster with significant playing time, Northern Arizona left open the possibility of adding another player at the position in the future.
ADDING TO THE OFFENSE
Mpungi, who had offers from Portland State, Southern Utah and Hawaii, left St. George, Utah, for Arizona as the Thunderbirds recently stepped up their recruiting in Northern Arizona’s home state.
“We want to sign the best guys from this region; Coach (Jimmy) Beal and our staff had him ranked as the top running back on our board from day one,” said wide receivers coach Aaron Pflugrad, who announced the offensive signees. “Coach Beal did a phenomenal job of going and getting him.”
Reportedly set to be Northern Arizona’s new offensive coordinator, Pflugrad, along with Souers, could not officially confirm the news Wednesday, though previously Tim Plough announced the offensive class before officially being promoted to offensive coordinator.
Pflugrad also announced the signings of two junior college receivers, Deyton Jackson and Stacy Chukwumezie. Jackson, originally a Marshall signee before moving on to Mesa Community College and Chukwumezie, who spurned a track and field scholarship to join Northern Arizona, will join Emmanuel Butler, Dan Galindo and Will Morehand as the trio returns from injury and Chancellor Brewington, Justis Stokes and Terrell Brown as the three enter their sophomore seasons.
While the additions were not necessary, Pflugrad said the group is trying to create competitive depth and force players to earn time on the field.
With 13 players signed on the offensive end, eight came on the defensive side of the ball. Just two of the defensive signees come from junior colleges, as safeties Sherrod Paige and Jamarri Jackson were joined by a pair of linebackers, two defensive tackles and another two safeties all from Arizona high schools.
While Paige comes from Orange Coast College in California via high school in Florida, Jackson adds yet another former College of San Mateo player to the Lumberjacks’ roster. With three signees from San Mateo a year ago, Jackson joins the recent trend of safeties from the school.
"They run a great program, the kids that they attract are hard working,” Souers said. “They tend to make the jump to D-1 a lot faster -- it is natural to go back there.”
Returning nine of its starting 11 from a year ago, and a large defensive line class from a year ago, many of the additions to Northern Arizona’s defense could be waiting on the sidelines longer than their offensive counterparts.
The six Arizona high-schoolers on the defense made up more than half of the 11 in-state recruits. Seven others came from California while Alaska, Florida and Utah all contributed one apiece.