The new offensive and defensive coordinators are proven veterans of championship teams in the Southland Conference, with Ben Norton adding the coordinator role to his duties as the Demons’ offensive line coach during last year’s 6-6 season that included a 3-1 finish and a 5-1 mark at Turpin Stadium. Mike Lucas was a highly successful defensive coordinator for 18 years at Sam Houston State, and helped mature the program and create the foundation for Southeastern Louisiana’s 2013 Southland championship season in five seasons as the Lions’ head coach (2007-11).
The fresh-faced special teams coordinator, August Mangin, played and worked on the football staff at LSU under Les Miles, whose creative and effective special teams play has been a hallmark of the most successful extended run in Tigers’ history.
The new coordinators haven’t discarded schemes that served the Demons well last season in the first year under head coach Jay Thomas, although one media member jokingly suggested on Twitter that Thomas and Norton were shifting NSU to the wishbone offense for 2014. There will be changes, but not radical shifts, coaches and players said Wednesday.
“Everybody on the offense is real excited. We have a new offensive coordinator in Coach Norton, but not much has changed with terminology or our approach. We’ve added some things that should make us even more productive as long as we do a good job executing,” said the 2013 Southland Newcomer of the Year, quarterback Zach Adkins, who broke seven single-season school passing records as a junior college transfer.
“It’s exciting to see how our offense is taking off. We know Coach Norton will have the offensive line doing great work. They’ll open holes so we will have a great run game, and they’ll give time for Zach to throw so we’ll have a great passing game,” said senior running back Garrett Atzenweiler.
Lucas is tweaking the Demons’ Purple Swarm defense, mindful of the traditionally aggressive play he watched from other sidelines during his 26 seasons on other Southland sidelines.
“We are going to play with a calculated violence,” said Lucas. “We’re telling our guys, the definition of the Purple Swarm is you’re either on the pile at the ball, or you’re sprinting to it.”
“Our new defensive coordinator pushed us hard all spring and we got better in 15 practices, so we feel very confident about the progress we can make in preseason camp and during the season,” said senior defensive tackle Damon Medcafe.
Lucas has a cornerstone up front with his senior nose tackle, 6-4, 344-pound Baton Rouge product Deon Simon, who drew attention from NFL scouts during a breakthrough junior campaign.
“I don’t know if there’s a defensive lineman in the FCS that’s as dominant as Deon Simon can be,” said Lucas, who for the past two seasons was defensive coordinator at Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference, which produced two-time FCS champion North Dakota State.
Simon says his focus is on the fall, not next spring when the NFL seems likely to come calling.
“It doesn’t affect me at all now. I will worry about that when the time comes after the season. My focus is on our season and what we need to do to win a championship,” he said.
Flanked by a corps of hard-charging defensive ends, including 2013 Freshman All-American JeMarcus Marshall, the Demons’ defensive tackles will anchor a front that could be big trouble for opposing passers. Adding to the challenge: NSU has both preseason first-team All-Southland cornerbacks, seniors Imoan Claiborne and Fred Thomas, along with veterans Rico Albert and Jason Yarbor backing them up.
“We are very strong and confident with four seniors returning in the secondary. We’re looking to build on that and we have some very capable younger guys who will help,” said Claiborne.
“The pass rush is everything to us. It makes our job in the secondary easy when the quarterback has to get rid of it in a hurry and with what we have going on up front, that’s what we expect,” added Thomas.
Offensively, the Demons have lots of experience back at receiver and running back. Players who scored 30 of last year’s 41 offensive touchdowns are back, and the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes will add to the mix.
“We have some younger receivers who are going to help us. We saw that on display Tuesday,” said senior wideout Bryant Mitchell. “There’s a lot of new stuff that Coach Norton put in that will add to our offensive package. We’re going to take a lot of deep shots and do things that will progress us to being an even more productive offense.”
The biggest question offensively is up front, where three senior starters graduated. Newcomers and redshirts will join nine returners in a group led by senior center Austin Douglas.
“We had some low numbers on the offensive line in the spring, but we knew help was on the way. We’ve brought in several young guys and now we have a rotation of three groups, which is just the right size rotation so we can get better and not get worn down,” said Douglas, who transferred from Ole Miss and spent the first half of the season at guard before senior center Warren Jones shifted there to allow Douglas to take a more comfortable spot.
“Last year was the first time I’d ever played guard in my life. I wanted to be on the field and that was the way to get out there quicker. It feels more natural to me playing center,” said Douglas.
“I’m real excited. We’re going to have a good offensive line. We’ll get Garrett and those good running backs some room to run, we’ll give Zach time to throw and get it to Bryant and all those other receivers in the end zone,” he said.
A couple of Demon seniors were especially happy to change the calendar to 2014. Linebacker Marion Chapman sat out last season when a couple of credits did not transfer from his junior college, and will be a focal figure for the Purple Swarm, said Lucas.
“It was hard sitting out but it helped me a lot. It taught me to be patient and I think it taught me how to be a better leader,” said Chapman.
Tight end Corey Simmons played last year, but at about “75 percent” of his capabilities after an ankle injury late in the 2012 season. It was obvious in spring practice his skill level was improved, and Norton took notice, padding the workload for NSU’s tight ends.
“I’ve worked hard and I believe I’m in position to have a great senior year. We’re putting a lot more in to make the tight end position more productive, so that will cause problems for defenses we face and as a group, obviously the tight ends are happy about that,” said Simmons.