Robert Husseman, The Triplicate

A bittersweet 2012 gives way to optimism for HSU, Del Norte High grad Brandon Kakitsuka

ARCATA - If 2011 signaled the arrival of Humboldt State football in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, the 2012 season showed how difficult it is to stay at the top.

The Lumberjacks won their first four games of the 2012 season and rose to No. 9 in all of NCAA Division II (according to the d2foot national poll) before losing consecutive games to Central Washington on Sept. 22 and Western Oregon on Sept. 29.

Humboldt shook off the losses to improve to 7-2 on the season, with a shot at the conference championship if the Lumberjacks won their final two games. Instead, road losses to Simon Fraser (41-37) on Nov. 3, 2012 and Western Oregon (38-22) on Nov. 10, 2012 did Humboldt in.

HSU finished its season with a 6-4 conference record (7-4 overall), finishing third behind Western Oregon. Central Washington (7-4 overall, 7-3 GNAC) came away with the conference title.

"It really sucks because we had a good team last year," said Lumberjacks wide receiver Brandon Kakitsuka, a 2011 Del Norte High graduate. "Once we lost one, it gets in everybody's mind."

That may have stemmed, in Kakitsuka's mind, from the Lumberjacks in 2011, when they won their first GNAC championship with a 7-1 conference record (9-1 overall) yet did not qualify for the NCAA Division II football playoffs.

"That 2011 team, they lost that one at Western (Oregon) ... they wanted revenge," said Kakitsuka, who redshirted the 2011 season at HSU.

"(The 2012 team thought) if you lose one, you can't get to the playoff realm. You've got to be undefeated. I think that's where we lost focus."

Humboldt's 2013 season begins at the Redwood Bowl on Saturday, Sept. 7, against Simon Fraser with a clean slate, largely due to an influx of freshman and transfer players on the roster. Forty-seven of the102 rostered players are new to the Lumberjacks, leaving a lot for sixth-year head coach Rob Smith to sort out.

Much of the internal competition will come on the defensive side of the ball. Of Humboldt's top 10 players by number of tackles recorded in 2012, just three return; safety Jerry Maluia, the Lumberjacks' leading tackler, is out for the season with an undisclosed injury, according to the Times-Standard newspaper.

"The defense will be all right," Kakitsuka said. "They just fly around."

Offensively, the picture is a little more settled. All-American running back Nick Ricciardulli (1,579 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2012) returns, as does senior wide receiver Marquise Deadwiler (team-high 42 receptions, 658 yards, four touchdowns).

Junior quarterback Kyle Morris, who was academically ineligble in 2012, is favored to win a camp battle against sophomore Casey Mintz. Center David Kulp and guard Dillon Reagan, the only two returning offensive linemen, are leaders of the unit.

Kakitsuka (seven catches, 115 yards in 2012) enters his redshirt sophomore year second only to Deadwiler in terms of returning wide receiver production. In all, 12 wide receivers are on the HSU roster entering fall camp, including four true and redshirt freshmen.

"It's a really good core group in terms of just getting along with each other," Kakitsuka said. "We all understand that there's only one ball and four wide receivers (on the field at a given time). When a Jack scores, it's cool. When a wide receiver scores, it's even cooler."

In order to secure a starting spot, Kakitsuka is focused on refining his routes, watching passes into his hands and excelling as a blocker.

"Blocking would be my number-one thing," he said. "Really getting in there, getting my hands in. If I don't block good, the running (game) is bad, so they know we're going to pass, which makes it hard on me."

Kakitsuka was limited in his practice participation on Thursday, Humboldt State's first official day of fall camp. He is dealing with tendinitis in his right shin and a left wrist sprain. The sprain has not prevented him from doing certain wide receiver drills, but his running has been hampered by the tendinitis.

"Coaches have faith in me," he said. "I'm happy I'm not a transfer or a freshman and this is happening. You get on that 'injured'list."

Once he returns to good health, Kakitsuka is eager to help bring Humboldt State back into contention in the six-member GNAC. The Lumberjacks play each league member twice and have an 11th game against Football Championship Subdivision member Portland State in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 14.

"If we get those new guys to get their minds on the conference championship," Kakitsuka said, "big things could happen."

Reach Robert Husseman at

Lumberjacks Football Schedule


Simon Fraser at Humboldt State, 6 p.m.

Redwood Bowl, Arcata


Humboldt State at Portland State, 1:05 p.m.

Portland, Ore.


Humboldt State at Azusa Pacific, 6:30 p.m.

Azusa, Calif.


Dixie State at Humboldt State, 6 p.m.

Redwood Bowl, Arcata


Central Washington at Humboldt State, 6 p.m.

Redwood Bowl, Arcata


Humboldt State at Western Oregon, 1 p.m.

Monmouth, Ore.


Azusa Pacific at Humboldt State, 6 p.m.

Redwood Bowl, Arcata


Humboldt State at Dixie State, 6 p.m.

St. George, Utah


Humboldt State at Central Washington, 1 p.m.

Ellensburg, Wash.


Humboldt State at Simon Fraser, 6 p.m.

Burnaby, B.C., Canada


Western Oregon at Humboldt State, 1 p.m.

Redwood Bowl, Arcata

*all games broadcast on the radio at KATA 1340 AM