AZUSA, Calif. -- After winning four consecutive games to close out the year with the best record in the second round of Great Northwest Athletic Conference play, eight Azusa Pacific football players were named to the All-GNAC Team Monday afternoon.
They are the first group of all-conference honorees for the Cougars, who completed their first season of conference membership in football after competing for 47 years as an independent program. Azusa Pacific is currently in Year Two of the three-year membership process into NCAA Division II.
Senior defensive tackle Manako Tuifua led the way as a unanimous first-team selection, and he was also named co-Defensive Lineman of the Year along with Western Oregon’s Gustave Benthin. Joining Tuifua on the first team defense was sophomore defensive back Tyler Thornton, who also earned all-conference second team as a kick returner.
Sophomore running back Terrell Watson and senior offensive lineman Robby Palacios represented the Cougars on the All-GNAC first team offense, and junior tight end Kevin Schick and senior offensive lineman Tim Taylor earned selection to the all-conference second team.
Junior linebacker Sean Barber and senior defensive back Darrell Wilson were named to the All-GNAC defense second team.
Tuifua was one of four unanimous selections to the first team defense, and the 5-foot-11, 305-pound nose tackle registered 42 tackles on the year, including 3.0 for loss. He had a hand in one sack and was credited with five QB hurries, and he recorded a season-high six tackles three different times in a four-game stretch in the middle of the year.
Thornton, a 5-foot-8, 178-pound free safety, ranked in the league’s top three in both tackles and interceptions, registering 85 tackles to finish as the GNAC’s No. 3-tackler, and his four interceptions on the year tied for second in the league. In addition, he ranked second in the league in kick return average, bringing back kickoffs an average of 25.7 yards including a 75-yarder in the season finale. Thornton had a pair of 14-tackle games, and he also finished the year with 3.0 tackles for loss. He notched three of his four picks over the final two games.
Watson posted the 11th 1,000-yard rushing season in Azusa Pacific history, rushing for 1,094 yards on 200 attempts (5.5 average), finishing only behind Humboldt State’s GNAC Offensive Player of the Year Nick Ricciardulli, whose 1,579 yards and 143.5 rushing yards per game ranked fourth nationally in NCAA Division II. For the second straight season, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Watson finished the season with at least one rushing TD in the final six games of the season, and just like he did a year ago, he rushed for a score in nine of the 11 games he played.
Palacios started all 11 games at right tackle, anchoring an offensive line that was decimated early in the year to injuries before hitting its stride during the second half of the year. The Cougars rushed for 80 more yards per game in the second round of GNAC play than it did in the first half, and the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Palacios was one of three Cougars to start all 11 games on the offensive line.
Taylor was one of the other 11-game starters, going through fall camp and into the opening week as the starter at right guard. However, during the season opener, with projected starter Luke Marquardt lost for what turned out to be the entire season, and his backup Jacob Thomas also suffering a season-ending injury on just the fifth offensive play from scrimmage, the 6-foot-2, 275-pound Taylor had to make the move down to the end of the line at left tackle. That’s where he stayed for the remainder of the season, earning second team all-conference honors while picking up the position on the fly as the Cougar line developed throughout the year.
Schick earned all-conference second team honors at tight end, where he finished the year with six catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Over half of his receptions, including an eight-yard TD catch, came in a pair of games against Humboldt State. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Schick had two receptions in each matchup with Humboldt State, also recording catches against Dixie State and Simon Fraser.
Barber was the league’s second-leading tackler, finishing with 86 tackles on the year. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound middle linebacker also registered 4.0 tackles for loss and one interception, and he also served as the Cougars’ primary punter until the final two weeks of the season. Barber tallied a season-high 14 tackles in the season opener, and he had three other games with double-digit tackles.
Wilson, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound cornerback, helped anchor Azusa Pacific’s GNAC-best pass defense, which surrendered just 188.4 yards per game through the air. Wilson registered 35 tackles on the season with two interceptions and a fumble recovery, and he was responsible for six pass breakups.
Four of the Cougars’ eight all-conference selections will be back for the 2013 season, which opens on Sept. 7 at four-time NCAA Division II national champion Grand Valley State.