National Signing Day

Three NAU football helmets are displayed on a table outside the National Signing Day event.

The NAU football program has undergone major changes in less than six months. It is known that former head coach Jerome Souers is no longer holding that title, but has passed the baton to Chris Ball.

When major changes are made in a coaching staff, it acts as a domino effect and revisions as a whole quickly follow.

After the Lumberjack’s past 4-6 season, Souers and many others were officially replaced. Last week, a new coaching staff was announced. A few are returning, but majority are making the move to 7000 feet for the upcoming season.

Offensive coordinator Aaron Phlugrad returns for another season. Last season his father Robin Phlugrad followed him in becoming a part of the Lumberjack staff. Robin Phlugrad is the most experienced of the returners with 37 seasons under his belt. This is his second season with NAU and has already switched roles. Last year, he joined the team as the wide receiver coordinator and is now assistant head coach and tight ends coordinator.

The next returner on staff is defensive line coach Everrette Thompson who upgraded from his graduate assistant title.

Finally, Jimmy Beal returns for season number 10 and acts as the cornerbacks coach as well as director of football operations.

“This year is different already,” Beal said. “[Coach Ball’s] persona on the program has brought so much energy and passion. Everyone’s energized from the equipment staff to the players.”

Having an even split of veterans to newbies, the newest additions have an impressive amount of experienced years joining the squad.

“It took me a while to hire them. I didn’t want to get in a hurry,” Ball said. “Since we’ve gotten here, we have not taken a day off.”

Robin Phlugrad has the most coaching seasons however, Jerry Patridge isn’t far behind with 33 seasons. According to NAU Athletics, 11 of those years were consecutive winning seasons with Missouri Western State University (MWSU) where he was head coach. Patridge will step down from his head coaching position at MWSU and hold the title of defensive coordinator at NAU.

On the other hand, Junior Taylor has coached one season at Wagner College. There he oversaw the wide receivers and will continue to do so for the Lumberjacks. Prior to his coaching career, Taylor played at UCLA with 1,372 receiving yards in five seasons.

A new season and a new coaching staff also means new players.

On Feb. 6 NAU football held a National Signing Day celebration at Twin Arrows Casino and Resort. The dining hall was packed with those ready to hear who the signers were.

“The family atmosphere is tremendous,” Robin Phlugrad said. “We’ve really gotten that point across during the recruitment process.”

The Lumberjacks left behind 13 seniors, freeing up positions defensively and offensively, and are keeping around 90 others after the 2018 season.

To make up for their loss, Ball announced there are 24 members a part of the recruiting class. Thirteen players were recruited on offense and the remaining 11 on defense.

As spectators of another losing season, it was difficult to hone in on what position needed help. The past few years the team relied on the Case Cookus and Emmanuel Butler duo. This season Butler is off on different adventures, leaving behind Cookus.

In early February, Butler received an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine. It is about a week-long event where, this year, almost 400 players will be examined by NFL staff on their capabilities physically and mentally.

Meanwhile Cookus is in Flagstaff for one last season. Cookus has held the first-string quarterback position since 2015. Through many injuries, he made the coaching staff sift through players to find someone to fill his position temporarily. Freshman Gino Campiotti, who was recruited as a quarterback, and Brandon Porter, who was recruited as a wide receiver however, each had game time as quarterbacks.

The 2019 season will officially be Cookus’ last season. If the new coaching staff wanted to prepare for the future, they would have had to start recruiting quarterbacks now.

Two quarterbacks signed with NAU on National Signing Day — Dawson McPeak and Jeff Widener.

McPeak hails from Yuba City, California and finished his final high school season 7-6 overall and 27 touchdown passes.

Widener comes to NAU from Apple Valley, California off of a 10-2 season, 53 touchdown passes and 3629 yards.

Both young players signed during the early signing period in December alongside three others, placing emphasis on the urgency for quarterbacks.

“These guys have done an unbelievable job with this recruiting class,” Ball said. “We know how difficult it can be to convince someone to ask their sons to be away from home. But [the coaching staff] did it and got some great players.”

As the winter fades away, spring practices for returning players begin. Their continuous workout regimens transition from the weight room to the field. The boys slowly work their way into full pads and helmets before practices begin entirely. After a couple weeks of outdoor practice, the football team transitions to the Walkup Skydome for the first time of the semester. They host a spring game — game being used loosely. It is intersquad scrimmage style and the team jumps around through different game-like drills and scenarios. It is not rare for incoming freshmen to complete high school early to get a head start with their new team, but none of the 24 recruits have declared that as their plan yet. The 2019 spring game has yet to be announced.