When Zach Bauman lines up at tailback in Northern Arizona’s season opener against Arizona State on Thursday, he will look across the line of scrimmage and see the opportunity he wanted.
There, with a hand on the ground and the maroon and gold jersey draped on his upper body, will be Jaxon Hood. Both are former members of the Hamilton football program — Bauman, two years older, played with Jaxon’s brother, Tevin — who knew they could succeed with the Sun Devils if given the chance.
Hood got it. Bauman did not.
Bauman ran for 1,178 yards and 25 touchdowns as a senior in 2009, and helped Hamilton to a 14-0 finish and a then-5A Division I state championship.
But February was a lonely month.
During his three years on varsity, Bauman watched as Gerell Robinson (Arizona State), Covaughn Deboskie (California), Devon Carrington (Stanford), Tevin Hood (Duke), Ryan Milus (Arizona), Patrick Jamison (Arizona State), Drew Terrell (Stanford) and Anthony Jones (Arizona State) made commitments to BCS-level college football programs on Signing Day.
Bauman had offers from Northern Arizona, Air Force and Southern Illinois as a senior. A majority of schools across the East Valley might have made him the toast of the town, but at Hamilton, he was just one of the rest.
“Most of my friends got the recognition, and I was happy for them, but it was a little tough knowing I wasn’t getting the same looks,” Bauman said.
Hood was in the same boat late in his senior year. He verbally committed to Boston College but longed to stay in-state and play for the Sun Devils. He participated in a postseason All-Star football game, and did everything he could — both on the field and during interviews — to get noticed.
Fate was kind to him. The firing of ASU coach Dennis Erickson and the hiring of Todd Graham put a new set of eyes on Hood’s game film. Graham liked what he saw, offered a scholarship, and received a commitment from Hood.
Bauman wasn’t so lucky.
Erickson and then-Arizona coach Mike Stoops gave him a cursory glance, but no offer ever came for the 5-foot-10, 200-pound running back, who eventually chose the Lumberjacks.
“Honestly, Zach should have gotten both offers,” Hood said. “He’s a lot better than some other guys that were brought in that are no longer with the program. It’s frustrating, but you have to trust it’s all going to work out in the end.”
It took Bauman awhile to find peace with the process.
He went to Northern Arizona because he knew he could play right away — he ran for 167 yards and four touchdowns in his collegiate debut — and finished that first year with 237 carries for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, setting a school record for rushing yards in a season by a freshman.
But he worried about being noticed by NFL scouts.
“I wasn’t too sure on how the looks were with the (Football Championship Subdivision) schools,” Bauman said. “But after my freshman year, I started to see you could make it out from here.”
As a sophomore last season, Bauman embraced his role as the go-to player on NAU, running the ball 271 times for 1,435 yards and 15 touchdowns. The yardage total was third-best in school history,
He enters Thursday’s season opener on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award — an honor given to the top player in the FCS each season, an award previously given to former NFL stars Steve McNair, Brian Westbrook and Tony Romo.
“From watching him on film, sometimes I question why he’s not here (playing for ASU),” Arizona State cornerback Deveron Carr said. “He’s good. He’s really good.”
Bauman actually prefers how it worked out. He started the very first game of his career and has been a pivotal part of the Lumberjacks offense since.
Had he landed at Arizona State, it’s possible Bauman could have been buried on the depth chart and never gotten this type of chance.
“Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he said.
Bauman may be content, but he’s still motivated.
When he lines up against the Arizona State defense, he won’t just see Hood, but a collection of former East Valley players who were deemed good enough to play at the BCS level.
Bauman had his first shot against the Sun Devils in 2010 — he carried the ball 22 times for 60 yards and a touchdown in a 41-20 loss — but he was a true freshman in only his second college game.
Back then, Bauman was happy to be on the field.
Now he wants to leave his imprint.
“(ASU) is a different coaching staff but the same school,” he said, “and this is the school that said I couldn’t do it.”