With eight of its top 10 leading tacklers returning, and essentially a starter at each position still available, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks defense holds the advantage during spring practice.
On the other hand, graduations, transfers and injury recoveries left the depth on offense depleted and without many options for reps. Only Case Cookus and Connor Leavens remain on the quarterback depth chart, with redshirt freshman Brandon Porter spending time at the position while still primarily working at receiver.
“The young guy is getting a lot of reps and we’d give Case more, but we don't want to wear his arm out either,” said Lumberjacks head coach Jerome Souers of the current quarterback situation.
After listing six quarterbacks on the roster a year ago, Northern Arizona’s replacements will not be available until the fall. Recently announced transfer Daniel Bridge-Gadd will arrive from Washington and California high school quarterback Gino Campiotti was announced as part of the February signing class.
Northern Arizona's Case Cookus prepares to throw a pass during spring practice at the Walkup Skydome.
Stone Smartt and Rodney Thompson, both true freshmen last season, transferred after one season with the Lumberjacks. Meanwhile, Hunter Correll and Gerrit Groenewold graduated from the team.
While there are few quarterbacks available, Northern Arizona’s offensive line also is mostly filled with inexperience. Blake Porter and Tyler Shank graduated after the fall, and returning starters Malik Noshi and Jamison Pruitt have been limited or absent so far.
Northern Arizona's Cole Habib looks to block during spring practice at the Walkup Skydome.
With just Cole Habib left at tackle, Northern Arizona’s offensive line reps have been filled by Chase Laurita, Josh Sparks, Jason Linden and early enrollee Jasean Harrison among others. Linden, listed at 6-7, 320 pounds, has spent time at tackle and guard while Harrison is a candidate to take over at center.
“It’s early to tell, it’s the fifth practice,” Souers said Tuesday. “It’s one thing to learn it like you learn in a classroom, but then doing it and doing it at the speed we need it to be done, that's where putting the two together is tough. Once you start going fast enough, you tend to forget some of the things you need to remember. Everybody is working through that -- the new guys and the guys that are stepping into a role to prove they can contribute.”
Northern Arizona's Jasean Harrison blocks during spring practice at the Walkup Skydome.
Including Harrison, Northern Arizona signed six offensive linemen in February. While one will not join the Lumberjacks for two years following a his mission, the other four will arrive for fall camp. Three of the four come from junior colleges in California and likely as options to play immediately.
Considering it illogical to install many new concepts under first-year offensive coordinator Aaron Pflugrad, Souers said the team is using the spring to test out position flexibility and experiment with some players in new spots.
“We are getting to see a lot of different players in different lineups, and while that doesn’t contribute to consistency, you are able to see who is more ready than the next,” Souers said. “Hopefully in the second half of spring, the last five or six practices, we are going to see consistency as we begin to groom the lineups.”
DEPARTURES FROM THE TEAM
While many players on the backend of the roster departed the program, with Northern Arizona losing roughly 20 players to circumstances other than graduations, a few early departures stood out.
Receiver William Morehand, who earned an All-Big Sky honorable mention as a punt returner in 2016, is no longer listed after dealing with foot injuries throughout last season.
Morehand caught six touchdowns and added more than 500 yards during two limited seasons.
Additionally, Northern Arizona’s secondary depth took a hit with Josh Clarke, Damahny Whittle and Cole Sterns no longer listed. Clarke finished eighth on the team in tackles, adding two sacks, five tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. With 11 tackles, including a sack, against Illinois State, Clarke earned the Big Sky Conference defensive player of the week award last season.
Whittle provided the pressure on a late two-point conversion attempt by Montana State that fell incomplete and allowed the Lumberjacks to remain in contention for a FCS playoff berth. Playing in 11 games as a freshman, Whittle finished with 24 total tackles and four for a loss.
Sterns, who announced his intention to graduate transfer from the program, spent three years playing in the secondary and finished with 12 tackles and an interception in 11 games last year.