The first time Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best met Emmanuel Butler, he threw the Northern Arizona receiver a red jersey and jokingly requested his services in Cheney.
Butler smiled and proceeded to keep his allegiance to the school in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“(NAU head coach Jerome) Souers wasn’t too happy with me for that,” said Best, recalling the 2016 Big Sky Conference media days gathering of players and coaches in Park City, Utah. “He’s a great player and a good person.”
Butler, now a senior coming off a medical redshirt season, is one of the most impressive targets in college football and has the attention of NFL scouts. The sixth-ranked Eagles (1-0) have the chore of containing the Lumberjacks’ 6-foot-4, 220-pound stalwart on the road Saturday at 4:05 p.m. at the Skydome.
He’s just part of the reason No. 18 Northern Arizona (1-0) is expected to return to the FCS playoffs.
All-Big Sky Conference first-team quarterback Case Cookus heads a balanced offense that had its way with FBS UTEP last week in 30-10 rout. A group of experienced receivers led by Butler has made Cookus, the 2014 FCS Freshman of the Year, especially dangerous.
Cookus, a Walter Payton Award nominee, is one of the top QBs at the FCS level, passing for more than 3,400 yards and 22 touchdowns last season.
EWU corner Josh Lewis faced Butler two years ago in a 50-35 win in Flagstaff, a game in which Cookus broke his collarbone in the third quarter. The teams didn’t play each other last season, and when they do Saturday it will be a nonconference game that may have postseason implications in November.
“Butler is huge, with a big body,” Lewis said. “His catch radius is pretty big. He’ll go up and get it and has some solid hands overall. It’s going to be hard to punch through his hands. We’re going to have to win that ball in the air.
“And it’s not even just him. (Chancellor) Brewington has a lot of speed and good route runner. (Brandon) Porter is a fast inside slot guy. It’s going to be fun for us.”
Butler cracked ESPN’s Top 10 plays last Saturday after tipping a pass to himself between a safety and a corner and bolting for an 84-yard touchdown.
Cory Young, who rushed for more than 800 yards last season, is in NAU’s backfield, working behind a relatively inexperienced offensive line that returned just two starters.
The Lumberjacks’ defense leans on an experienced secondary that that yielded just 174 yards through the air per game in 2017. UTEP, which didn’t win a game last year, totaled a meager 127 passing yards against NAU’s corners and safeties, who’ve combined for nearly 50 career starts.
EWU senior Gage Gubrud, also one of the FCS level’s top QBs, carved up NCAA Division II power Central Washington’s secondary last week to the tune of 337 yards and five touchdowns in just over three quarters of work.
Gubrud, who had nearly 500 total yards in his last meeting with the Lumberjacks, said he expects a defense that brings the heat.
“They’re a very good team. We have a lot of respect for them,” Gubrud said. “They’ve got good players just like we do and game plan like do. It’s a great opportunity.”
EWU was picked to the win the Big Sky Conference title by coaches and media. NAU was picked third.
Souers, NAU’s 21-year head coach, said he is impressed with EWU’s offensive balance and defensive packages.
“They’re a very experienced group with players who’ve played a lot of reps, and Gubrud is going to be Gubrud,” Souers said. “We thought they deserved to be in the playoffs last season, and their offensive line has improved from last season.”
Consider it FCS Game of the Week
An early-season game between a pair of Top 25 teams and two of the nation’s top quarterbacks, the EWU-NAU has been named the STATS FCS Game of the Week.
“It will be a playoff-type atmosphere against a playoff-type opponent,” Best said. “Both teams are loaded. There will be a ton of big plays. Hopefully, we make one or two more.”
Cookus said he expects a near sellout crowd.
“There’s a lot of hype going into this game.” Cookus said.
Gubrud lauds offensive line
In the Eagles’ 58-13 rout of Central Washington last week, the Eagles didn’t yield a sack.
Gubrud, whose offense racked up nearly 700 yards, said he only withstood a single hit in the backfield and hopes that continues on Saturday.
“They bring some pressure and stuff like that and get to the quarterback, which is always a pain,” he said.
One of NAU’s most inexperienced position groups is its defensive line.
EWU AD talks
of new stadium
New EWU athletic director Lynn Hickey said the school has made a concrete decision to renovate Roos Field.
In an EWU athletics podcast this week, Hickey said the school is searching for an architectural firm and hopes to have a design ready between November and early 2019.
“This has to be a fundraising thing. This has to be built with outside funds,” said Hickey, who didn’t mention an estimated cost.
The Gateway Project, which was proposed in 2012 to renovate Roos Field, never gained any traction.
Hickey said the school’s new plan won’t fizzle.
“This is going to happen, but we have to be realistic. If you don’t have a huge donor base, you can’t build a $100 million deal,” Hickey said, “You have to look at the bond capacity and debt capacity. It has to be realistic.
“We have got to make improvements in the stadium, we have to address student-athlete welfare issues, the training room, the dressing room, the weight room. If we truly want to win conference championships and contend for national championships, this has to be addressed. But people need to understand that we’re all going to have to chip in to make it happen.”