On NSU’s depth chart are 28 players who have started at least once for NSU previously, 13 offensively and 15 on defense. Left guard Jonathan Lewis, right guard Luke Burleson and right tackle Delryn Wilson are first-time starters offensively, while slash linebacker Wilbur Myers and weakside linebacker Marion Chapman are the only first-time starters on defense, although converted slash linebacker Adam Jones, a starter as a redshirt freshman last year, has moved to free safety.
Thomas said the Demons will have deep rotations at tight end, running back, defensive end and cornerback, and have the depth they needed to develop at quarterback behind returning senior starter Zach Adkins, last year’s Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year. Sophomore Daniel “Bear” Hazlewood has regained his No. 2 status as the season opens, edging redshirt freshmen J.D. Almond and T.J. Fleeton.
“Quarterback has been very competitive to see which of the younger guys would move closest to Zach, and as we start the season, that’s Bear,” said Thomas. “He wasn’t No. 2 after spring, but over the summer, he matured and trimmed up physically. The ball is flying out of his hands, he’s making really good decisions, he has a lot of poise, he’s athletic and moves in the pocket, he can run the ball really well, what we were expecting from him going into spring ball. J.D. and T.J. have gotten better too. We’re much better for this fall and moving forward at quarterback.”
Senior tight end Corey Simmons, fully recovered from a foot injury as a sophomore, has convincingly won the tight end’s job but senior Chris Dever, junior college transfer Zach White and true freshman Chase Hawthorne have earned opportunities to play.
“Tight end has been interesting to watch. We’re using so many different packages with them, and we’ve gotten a lot better at that position,” said Thomas.
Burleson, a senior who moved from a backup role at right tackle, earned the nod at right guard while junior Zach Shumann and true freshman Andrew Bluiett will also play.
“The right guard position has been very heated. We’ve had that one circled and we’ve been working very hard on that spot. Burleson’s been around the block and his experience is why we moved him from right tackle. Schumann has done well and Bluiett has just been very impressive as a true freshman, and we want to get him involved,” said Thomas.
Senior Garrett Atzenweiler gets the opening day start at running back, with junior Daniel Taylor and sophomore De’Mard Llorens also bringing starting experience to the mix. Sophomore Matt Flores has improved his stock while true freshman Ronald Green is going to be tough to redshirt, said Thomas.
“Running back is a battle day to day. They’re all talented, they work extremely hard, and they bring different aspects to our offense. The situation in the game and who is the hot back will dictate who gets more work game to game,” he said.
Redshirt freshman Dannie Harmon has bolstered an already deep defensive end depth chart. Senior Justin Evans is a returning starter, senior Cornist Broadway started before a 2013 spring knee injury that sidelined him last fall, and junior Leroy Armstrong and sophomore JeMarcus Marshall each started at times last year and are co-starters at one end slot.
“It’s a constant battle with these defensive ends. They can all make plays,” said Thomas. “Dannie Harmon made a big jump from his redshirt year. He had a great offseason, and got better as spring went along, and has had a good camp. Cornist, even though he’s only about 85 percent at this point, he’s a sixth-year senior, he’s a grown man, and he does what we need. Justin Evans is a talented guy. Leroy and JeMarcus, which one? They’re both good players and we call them both starters on the other side. Chris Cryer has stepped up behind them and will get some time. His motor is running fast.”
Senior cornerbacks Imoan Claiborne and Fred Thomas were preseason first-team All-Southland Conference selections, while senior Rico Albert also has starting experience and “could start a lot of places,” said Thomas. The safety spots were points of emphasis in preseason camp and will be hotspots early, with Jones living up to expectations as the starting free safety and converted cornerback Jason Yarbor shoring up depth at strong safety, where sophomore Chase Collins, who got some starts last year, opens at No. 1.
“Those guys are understanding they’re the last line of defense. We’ve gone through growing pains and hopefully we’ll not have too many more, but there will be some,” said Thomas. “Moving Yarbor from corner to safety, which he played in high school, has worked out. We’re looking for consistency and right now Adam, Chase and Yarbor are tops in that department.”
Louisville transfer Lyn Clark will play immediately at weakside linebacker, where senior Marion Chapman is the unquestioned starter and a dynamic addition to the Purple Swarm defense. Senior WaDerrious Sellers, who has starting experience, will split time at the slash linebacker slot with first-time starter Wilbur Myers, a junior.
In the middle, senior Tyler Roussel and junior Paxton Cook both have started previously.
“Even though you list ones and twos on your depth chart, a lot of those twos are capable of starting,” said Thomas. “We see the depth chart as a good way to rotate at practice. We’ll have twos and some threes and even fours getting in at times.”