No wonder Demons' special teams coordinator Shep Campbell has a tone of excitement, and urgency, when he speaks.
"Early season games, more than any other, swing on special teams. This first game, it's magnified because we're on the road against a veteran, well-coached team at Missouri State," said Campbell after NSU's two-hour workout Thursday afternoon in full gear was capped by kickoff return drills.
"We have a chance to be explosive in the return game," he said. "We were working timing on kickoff return today."
The Demons stage their second and final major scrimmage Saturday morning at 10 a.m. in Turpin Stadium, with head coach Jay Thomas planning to run 85 plays as performances will greatly influence the depth chart. On special teams, Campbell has plenty of blank spots to fill with new contributors or veterans moving into heightened roles.
"We're to the point in camp where a lot of our schemes have been implemented. We're progressing nicely," he said.
"Special teams can go two ways dramatically - you can either bust a game wide open, or you can fall way behind. The two more important units are kickoff and punt teams. Those percentage-wise are most critical. A fumbled return hurts, it changes the field, but a big return yards or a punt block can crush an opponent," said Campbell.
"You've got to be sound, solid in the fundamentals. We've focused on simplicity, on assignments, on technique. The first week of camp, we did nothing but work on technique, just kickoff drills, because so much of that carries over. This week's been more about scheme, and next week will be about situations," he said.
Two record-setting specialists were 2012 seniors - kickoff returner Phil Harvey and kicker John Shaughnessy. Newcomers are the contenders for the kicking slot.
"We've been really pleased with (Iowa State transfer) Chris Moore. He's got a cannon of a leg and has been doing well kicking the football. The potential is really there," said Campbell about the sophomore from Plano, Texas. "Having a good kicker is a cornerstone to having successful special teams play."
Sophomore Ed Eagan stepped in as a true freshman last fall when Harvey was injured and missed most of four games late in the season. He had an 82-yard kickoff return touchdown against FCS national runner-up Sam Houston State and is included on the College Football Performance Award return specialist watch list for 2013.
Eagan is the only veteran of four in the mix with collegiate return experience, while true freshman Shakeir Ryan (Lafayette-Northside) is also challenging for a chance.
"Ed Eagan, (cornerbacks) Imoan Claiborne and Fred Thomas, (receiver) Cody Jones, that's our top four who will catch and run with it," said Campbell. "Ed can do both punt and kick return, and does both really well. Shakeir Ryan has enough speed to make something happen. He's been fun to watch."
At punter, true freshman Chase Tassin (Hammond-St. Thomas Aquinas) has the edge as sophomore Andy Wickman has missed the first two weeks of practice for disciplinary reasons.
"Chase has done a really nice job punting the ball. We're on schedule there," said Campbell. "He's also in the mix at holder for kicks."
"We've worked Brandon Monrose, Tuff McClain and Chase at holder and that's gone nicely. Our operation time has gotten better each day," said Campbell.
Another special teams role that like holder, hopefully remains unnoticed, is deep snapper.
"Hunter Graves and Kevin Garza are having a good competition at deep snapper," said Campbell. "That's a critical job and we like how they're doing it."
Jobs on coverage and protection units are up for grabs, he said, and will be set sometime next week before the Demons hone in on the game plan for Missouri State.
NSU will practice twice Friday, at 8:30 a.m. and 7 p.m., before Saturday morning's scrimmage.