Humboldt State’s NCAA Division II football team went from 0-11 to oh, brother, are they playing well in a big hurry.
“The team we had in the spring was not the team we put on the field last fall,” said HSU head coach Rob Smith, whose Lumberjacks are 3-0 this season including an upset victory at University of Texas-Kingsville and a stunning victory over Azusa Pacific just a week after AP dumped Grand Valley State on national television. “We were hit by lots of injuries last year and that drastically changed our team. We’ve gotten players back and they’ve all recommitted themselves.”
Humboldt, located in Arcata, California, and Azusa Pacific are the only NCAA Division II teams in California. The Lumberjacks’ thrilling start has energized a raucous, faithful fan base located on the coast 269 miles north of San Francisco and roughly 100 miles from the Oregon border.
“We have a very unique community that really supports our football program,” Smith said of his Great Northwest Athletic Conference power. “We feel like it’s really important to give them a team that they can really enjoy coming out and supporting. When we win, the community is excited, so we feel like the fans were hurt last year, not just our players. It’s great to see the players and community celebrating again.”
The Lumberjacks defense has given up just nine points per game, ranking seventh in the nation in that category. They rank sixth in Division II giving up just 220 yards per game.
“Our early success is very much built on the backs of our defense,” Smith said. “We’re schematically about the same, but we plugged in some new players. But, most of all, we got key players back from injuries.”
Among the stars who are healthy in 2014 are 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior cornerback Nick Sharpe and 5-11, 210 senior free safety Jeremiah Maluia.
Everybody has just really upped their game defensively for us.
“Everybody has just really upped their game defensively for us,” Smith said.
Senior defensive end Alex Markarian is a 6-4, 275 star who has anchored the front along with 6-1, 265 senior tackle Silas Sarvinski.
Senior linebacker Travis Hansen (6-2, 235) earned GNAC Defensive Player of the Week honors in a 50-3 win over Dixie State in Utah on Sept. 20.
Smith turned the offense over to 5-foot-9 true freshman quarterback Robert Webber and couldn’t be happier with the player who was a high school star at Corona Centennial in southern California.
“He’s a football junkie,” Smith said of Webber. “Corona Centennial asked a lot of him playing against top competition. He has a great football mind and our players very quickly rallied around him and he’s done a fine job.”
Humboldt State ranks 38th in the nation in rush offense.
Tailback Ja’Quan Gardner has rushed 42 times for 327 yards and five TDs. Nick Ricciardulli, one of the players who was injured a year ago, has rushed for 273 yards and two scores on 63 carries.
The Lumberjacks have an incredibly young, inexperienced offensive line.
“It’s a young, but cohesive, group,” Smith said. “That they are a cohesive unit is their strength. They’ve bonded together and really enjoy playing together.”
Left tackle Jake Capps (6-7, 299) is a true freshman, while the only senior up front is 6-3, 295 Mick Johnson. The center is sophomore Lucas Govan (6-4, 285). Sophomore right guard Josh Hanson (6-2, 285) lines up alongside junior tackle Jonathan Rice (6-6, 285).
“Our goal every year is to win the conference championship,” Smith admitted. “We were picked to win the title last year. We have a certain set of standards on and off the field. We’re happy to have a group of players who wanted to be here and who are playing so well.”