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August 27, 2012

First look: Northern Arizona

Since taking over the program in December, Arizona State first-year coach Todd Graham has preached keeping homegrown talent in the valley as a key pillar for success in Tempe.

Well, when his team takes the field at Sun Devil Stadium for the first time Thursday, one of Graham's biggest concerns will be stopping a decorated Lumberjack tailback that played prep ball in ASU's backyard.

Once a standout at Chandler Hamilton, NAU junior Zach Bauman is in the process of rewriting the record books in Flagstaff and hopes to make statement Thursday, against a school, albeit with a new coaching staff, that passed on him out of high school.

Bauman received respectable offers from Air Force and Southern Illinois, but decided NAU was his best option once the two in-state BCS schools didn't show enough interest.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "They didn't think I was good enough. I want to show them what they missed out on."

Though some scouts thought that he didn't possess the open field speed to be successful at the BCS level, Bauman has thrived against FCS opponents over his first two collegiate seasons, producing over 2,400 yards on the ground and a combined 30 touchdowns. Last season alone he rushed for 1,435 yards, good enough for fourth in the nation in the category.

His prowess earned him a preseason candidacy entering this year for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top running back in college football.

"That meant a lot to me," he said. "Sometimes I don't think I get that accolades other guys do because I play here, but getting your name put on that list with guys of that talent says a lot."

Thursday won't be the first time Bauman has played under the lights against a Pac-12 team. After rushing for 167 yards in his first game as a true freshman in 2010, the tailback received 22 carries against the Sun Devils the following week, tallying 60 yards and a touchdown as ASU won 41-20.

Then as a sophomore as year ago, Bauman performed even better against Arizona in Tucson, collecting 99 yards on the ground and 20 yards receiving even though the Lumberjacks were again blown out.

The experience against BCS teams, Bauman admits, has the running back feeling more confident this time around as he plays in front of his hometown crowd again.

"I've never been more prepared for game than I am for this one," he said. "I was wide-eyed last time but now I know what to expect. I did so much film study for these guys, I feel a lot better going into this game. I'll be excited to see my family, but I won't be nervous."

Even though the junior has already surpassed what most others expected of him when he came out of high school, Baumann insists he hasn't surprised himself.

"This is what I planned to do," he said. "Maybe I shocked a few people who didn't really know me, but I had faith in myself and it's been a blessing so far."

When kickoff comes Thursday, NAU will get Bauman the ball in just about every facet of its offensive game. The junior said he'll run between the tackles, get out in the flats and even catch the ball down the field.

While the Sun Devils tend to throw their running backs swing passes often behind the line of scrimmage, the Lumberjacks have made it a point to get Bauman in the middle of the field to also make plays with his hands.

Catching just 29 passes a season ago, Bauman totaled 352 receiving yards, an average of 32 yards per reception. The junior's versatility to make big plays anywhere on the field has ASU targeting him in its sights.

"They have a really good tailback; he is a guy that can definitely play at this (BCS) level," Graham said. "He is a guy that we have to keep in check. They are going to give him the ball, run screens, get him out of the backfield and he is the guy to stop."

As for the rest of the Lumberjack offense, senior quarterback Cary Grossart will lead the charge. In his second season under center, Grossart accumulated 2,745 yards last year with 16 touchdowns while completing 65.9 percent of his passes.

The quarterback is somewhat of a running threat as he rushed 79 times in 2011 for 298 yards.

"Cary Grossart has done a remarkable job and had a great fall camp," NAU offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said on the school's official athletics website. "I think he is going to have an All-Big Sky type year and I think he can lead us to where we want to go. He has the complete skills and the leadership capabilities with the experience last year putting him in a position to be successful."

Defensively, the Lumberjacks are looking to improve from ranking No. 84 in total yards allowed last season in the FCS. NAU gave up 389.45 yards per game and only created 12 turnovers all year, the 115th lowest total in the nation.

Bauman said to keep an eye on junior defensive lineman Tim Wilkinson, out of powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Nevada, who recorded 30 tackles last year with a team-best six tackles for loss.


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