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NAU players to come home for big game

Senior Preston Saunders, who will look to add depth to a depleted core of wide receivers, talks to defensive backs coach Carl Franks during practice Saturday.(Photo courtesy of Bryan Kinkade / The Lumberjack)

To upset the No. 15 college football team in the nation on the road would be amazing.

To do it in front of friends and family in your old backyard would be phenomenal.

Senior tight end Shaun Fitzpatrick is just one of the many NAU players who will be returning to where his football career began.

Fitzpatrick, a graduate of Highland High School in Gilbert, said the whole team is eager for this matchup.

When you consider that Sun Devil Stadium has nearly three times the capacity of any other venue NAU will be playing at this season, it’s easy to see why the team is fired up.

“I grew up an ASU season ticket holder,” Fitzpatrick said. “My friends and family have been calling me and are excited to see me play.

“It’s going to be great to play in front of that crowd.”

Coach Jerome Souers also spoke about having so many players from the Valley.

“Well, for anybody that goes back home, it’s a big deal,” Souers said. “There is a lot of pride at stake.”

Along with practicing against the first-team defense, Fitzpatrick said NAU has also prepared by practicing with a lot of artificial noise in anticipation of a raucous crowd.

“We know we can’t match their speed,” Fitzpatrick said. “But we’ve been doing a lot of practice where it’s first-team offense versus first-team defense to try and prepare.”

NAU has played the role of “little brother” against ASU in a rivalry that dates back to 1915.

The Lumberjacks have only won four games in the 27 meetings between the two schools, and have lost the last six.

NAU heads into the game with little pressure as a huge underdog.

But the “little brother” has been known to accomplish great things when he’s been counted out.

“You can never go into a game expecting to lose,” Fitzpatrick said. “We know they’re a great team, but we’re going to go out there and give it our best effort and see what the outcome is.”

Souers said that no matter what the final score is, the game represents a great opportunity for his program.

“[ASU] probably deserves a higher ranking than [it has] right now,” Souers said. “It is certainly a great profile of exposure for our program, and an opportunity to play in that kind of a venue.”

That is not to say that the Lumberjacks have never been able to compete with ASU.

In the 2006 meeting, the score was tied at 14 entering the fourth quarter, when the Lumberjacks ran out of steam, eventually losing the game 35-14.

Wide receiver Alex Watson basically carried the NAU offense with 214 yards receiving, including two scores of 80 and 60 yards.

With his departure, the Lumberjacks are faced with a number of huge questions on offense.

Who will step up and take the lead at receiver? Even more importantly, who will get the call to step under center?

NAU’s signal callers were riddled with injuries last season, and the Lumberjacks have yet to name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game.

“We are going to wait until game time to make that decision,” Souers said.

Junior running back Alex Henderson is the lone solid option for Souers among the skill position players.

Henderson, who led NAU’s 13th-ranked rushing attack in the nation last year, enters the season as the Lumberjacks’ 10th all-time leading rusher. Henderson totaled more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage last season and scored eight touchdowns.

As the offense searches for answers, the defense has one in senior cornerback K.J. Gerard.

He ranks second among all active college players in career interceptions, and is the leader on defense.

“This is the best lineup of talent that we have had since 2003,” Souers said.

In recent years, results have stipulated that no team can be overlooked. If ASU makes the mistake of looking ahead in the season, their “little brother” just might be able to enjoy a dream homecoming.

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