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Countdown to Kickoff: A deep dive on ASU's first opponent, NAU

Anthony Totri Avatar
May 5, 2022

The Arizona State football team is still 119 days from its first game of the season, but it’s never too early to dissect what ASU’s opponent, Northern Arizona, will bring to Sun Devil Stadium on Sept. 1.

Unlike ASU, the Lumberjacks are returning a boatload of key players from last season. Most notably, NAU returns sophomore quarterback RJ Martinez.

Martinez started in seven games, but played in eight on his way to securing Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year honors. The Lumberjacks went 4-3 last season with Martinez starting.

He threw for 1,713 yards and 14 touchdowns, while only throwing two interceptions. Martinez will be matched up against a Sun Devil secondary that’s been labeled the weakest link of this ASU defense.  Even so, the talent gap from the team in Tempe to the one in Flagstaff should be enough to supplement for a questionable secondary.

Aside from Martinez, it looks like the Lumberjacks will boast a three-headed monster in the backfield. The lead running back for NAU in 2022 will be sophomore Kevin Daniels. Daniels put up big numbers last season, rushing for 1,146 yards. He was the first Lumberjack running back to go over 1,000 yards since the 2015 season. 

Junior running back George Robinson will play second fiddle, while sophomore tailback Draycen Hall plays more of a change-of-pace role. Robinson didn’t play much a season ago, but given his 230-pound frame, he figures to be the go-to, short-yardage back.

Hall is much smaller than Robinson and does most of his damage in the receiving game. Hall hauled in 29 passes for 244 yards in 2021. 

Those three provide NAU with a variety of options to wear down opposing defenses. They will face a challenge in the Sun Devils defensive line and linebacking corps, which are some of, if not the strongest position groups ASU has. 

Despite the loss of sophomore linebacker Eric Gentry, who transferred to USC, the Sun Devils still return two starters at the position. Redshirt fifth-year linebacker Kyle Soelle returns to the mix for ASU. Soelle led the Sun Devils in tackles a season ago with 82 total, which was 14 more than any other player on the roster. 

Washington tight end Cade Otton (87) is tackled by Arizona State linebackers Kyle Soelle (34) and Merlin Robertson (8) after catching a pass during the second quarter of a 2021 game at Husky Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports)

Another veteran returnee is fifth-year linebacker Merlin Robertson. Robertson has been a staple of the Sun Devil defense for the last handful of seasons. He figures to be a key piece if he can turn back the clock to his 2020 form when he was named to the Butkus Award watch list. 

An area of concern on the other side of the ball for ASU in the offseason has been the fleeting talent at wide receiver and quarterback. Those positions figure to be an issue with NAU possessing one of the best Big Sky Conference defenders in redshirt senior safety Morgan Vest.

Vest put up astronomical numbers last season. He recorded 106 tackles, which ranked 21st in the FCS. The strength of this NAU team however is on offense, but that didn’t stop Lumberjacks coach Chris Ball from praising the defense. 

“They’ve had a great spring, and we’re really looking forward to seeing what they can do this season,” Ball said to the Arizona Daily Sun following NAU’s spring game on April 23. “We’re really pleased with the way they’re playing in the back end.”

While this NAU team appears to be set for one of its best seasons in recent memory, the history between these two programs clearly favors ASU. There’s even a little bit of a relationship with Ball and the Sun Devils football program. 

Ball served as a defensive coordinator at the University of Memphis before becoming the Lumberjacks coach . Ball’s head coach at Memphis was none other than Mike Norvell, a former ASU offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2015. 

While relationships are fun and all, history doesn’t bode well for the Lumberjacks in this area of the state. Even with the Sun Devils’ offseason catastrophes, they figure to start the season 1-0.

The last time these two teams played was back in 2016. The Lumberjacks kept it a game going into halftime, trailing the Sun Devils 10-3. Former ASU coach Todd Graham’s team, led by quarterback Manny Wilkins, dominated the second half to win the game 44-13.

It would be one thing if ASU had won that 2016 game but lost a couple here or there to the team up north. That’s simply not the case in the history between ASU and NAU.

The Sun Devils have won 10 in a row dating to 1939. To put it another way, the last time NAU beat ASU in a football game, air-conditioned cars hadn’t been invented. But who knows? Maybe Ball’s team can find some magic to give the Lumberjacks their first win over Arizona State football since Seabiscuit beat War Admiral.

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