After a long layoff, Northern Arizona is finally back in action this week at No. 2 Weber State, as the Lumberjacks try to pull off a big upset against one of the best teams in the country.
After a postponed game against Idaho and a bye week, NAU is chomping at the bit for its matchup this weekend. Here’s a few notes and things to consider as the Lumberjacks get back to the field:
Facing A Tough Opponent
Weber State is ranked in the top-five in both the FCS Coaches Poll and the Stats Perform FCS Top-25. Under head coach Jay Hill, the Wildcats are off to a 2-0 start and are a major contender in the postseason.
For Chris Ball’s young group in Flagstaff, Saturday is going to be a measuring stick and a challenge against a program that has championship aspirations.
“They are very physical and they are a really good football team,” Ball said of Weber State. “Jay Hill does a great job of building that program…He felt like going into this season it’s the best team that he’s had and I’d have to agree with that. They are really good up front and on both sides of the ball. There’s not a position that they are young at and they’ve got a veteran group. He’s been there and he’s built that thing the right way.”
Dealing With Time Off
The last time NAU took the field was March 6 at Eastern Washington. In that game, the Lumberjacks were without a few players in the secondary and did not have their entire roster due to COVID-19 protocols.
However, with a few weeks gone by, NAU is back at full strength. The team has had a few high-intensity practices in that span, and have had a chance to regroup after the Eastern Washington loss.
“The kids are biting at the bit. They are ready to play,” Ball said. “We just continue to get better and that’s good for us because we are so young…We’ve given them some time off, which has helped us get healthy and allowed our kids to get back. We had a lot of guys come off contract tracing and COVID so we’ve gotten all those guys back…It’s been nice to have our full squad out there the last few weeks.”
There’s always both sides of the coin when it comes to extended time off in athletics. There’s time to relax and recover from midseason injuries, but there’s also the point that teams can get away from their rhythm and get out of sorts with no game reps.
It’s a seesaw that Ball is looking to balance with his team full of youth as they get ready to venture to Utah this weekend. In addition to more rest, the team mixed in more individual drills and addressed position groups to weigh in on what needs to be improved moving forward in certain areas.
“It’s 50/50,” Ball said of the layoff. “If you’re on a roll, you want to keep on playing. If you’re banged up, you want the bye and you get your best players back. We’ve always discussed that and that’s always the big question is how do you practice on bye weeks? I think it helped us because our players got better. Being so young, we need that practice time.”
Both redshirt senior Keondre Wudtee and freshman Jeff Widener have seen snaps at quarterback this spring for the Lumberjacks.
Wudtee, an Oklahoma State transfer, has thrown for 343 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winning pass in the final seconds to help lead NAU to a thrilling one-point victory over Southern Utah to begin the year.
However, an injury sidelined him for much of the Eastern Washington game, leaving Widener to step under center. Although Wudtee is the upperclassman and has received more playing time thus far, both quarterbacks have shown that they are capable. Ball gave an update on Wudtee’s status and the signal-callers earlier this week.
“Both of them are taking reps. He’s (Wudtee) is coming along and the injury report is getting better each day…K Dub (Wudtee) is getting healthy so we’ll see,” he said. “If K Dub can’t go, Jeff is ready. He’ll be the guy.”
On a normal college football calender, this time of year would be a major time to travel and recruit for not only NAU’s coaching staff, but staffs around the country.
7-on-7 tournaments and many recruiting tasks are done during the offseason and in the spring, but in a pandemic world and in the midle of a spring football season, those duties become that much more difficult.
NAU has put an emphasis on recruiting a State 48 All-Star team, but there is still much more to be done after the program landed its most recent highly-rated class.
In California, high schools have just begun their shortened high school seasons, with various schools from around the Golden State putting on the pads after COVID-19 left their games on hold during the fall.
“We’ve got a pretty good staff that likes to recruit and has a really good handle on the state. We’ve got a good Zoom plan, but it just takes time,” Ball said of the logistical challenges of recruiting during this time. “You just have to be efficient and besides the relationships with our players, recruiting is number one. We’ve got to take time on it. The problem is we haven’t been able to go out and see them (players/recruits). We saw the 21 kids in the previous year by having them in camp or saw them at showcases, but the hard part is not being able to see them.
“California just started playing and we’re trying to evaluate California kids off of sophomore tape, which is hard. Not being out on the road really hurts you as far as not getting a good look at the kids and see if they’re big enough and they have the frame to ask them what they have to do. That part has been difficult, so we’re hoping to have camps in June and we know once this thing opens up, we’re hoping to have a list of who we need to get to campus.”
NAU and Weber State kick off this weekend in Ogden at noon local time.