By Jonathon Zenk, NSU sports information graduate assistant
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Northwestern State starts its 111th year of football, its first under head coach Brad Laird, when it visits on Texas A&M on Thursday evening at Kyle Field in a contest televised nationally by the SEC Network.
Kickoff is set for 7:36 between the Demons and Aggies. This is the first meeting between the two teams. It is also the first time NSU has played a team from the SEC since a 62-13 loss to Mississippi State in 2015.
Both teams’ head coaches are in their first year in charge at their programs as Northwestern State’s Laird begins his head coaching career against Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher.
Laird tries to carry the momentum from an ending of the 2017 season that saw the Demons (4-7) win three of their last four.
Fisher was 83-23 with the Florida State Seminoles before taking a 10-year, $75 million contract to coach Texas A&M. At FSU, Fisher recorded a national championship victory over Auburn to end the 2013 season.
After Laird was promoted to head coach last November, he tapped two former head coaches as his coordinators. Brad Smiley is returning to NSU as the offensive coordinator after building Trinity Valley Community College into a junior college football power. Defensive coordinator Mike Lucas, head coach at Southeastern Louisiana for five seasons, returns to NSU after three years at UL Lafayette. His 2014 Demon defense was fifth in the country, forcing 30 turnovers.
Following a month of preseason camp and practice, the Demon coaches and players are eager to compete against an opponent.
“We’re at the point where we just want to line up and play against somebody else. Northwestern State has been playing against Northwestern State since last spring, and finally, we get that opportunity to tee it up and go against somebody else Thursday night,” said Laird.
NSU has not named a starter at quarterback and will play both senior Clay Holgorsen and junior Shelton Eppler against Texas A&M.
“They both earned that opportunity. We evaluate them in the different phases of spring ball, summer work and now fall camp,” said Laird, “and they both have earned the right to play. I want to make sure is they understand the nature of how this is going to go. You never want the starter to look over his shoulder.”
The Demons’ new fast-paced offense was bolstered by two big transfer weapons, Quan Shorts from Texas Tech, and Jazz Ferguson from LSU.
NSU’s leading receiver from 2017, Jaylen Watson, is back after he caught 31 passes for 484 yards and averaged 15.6 yards per catch. Marquisian Chapman, who also made 31 receptions last season, returns for his senior season.
After catching only two passes as a junior in 2017, senior tight end Kalen Meggs is expected to be more involved in the passing attack this season.
Running back Jared West, a junior, returns after averaging 5.2 yards per carry as a sophomore in 2017. West, who ran for five touchdowns, also caught 14 passes.
On defense, senior end Obi Iheoma leads a strong front seven. Iheoma had eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. Senior defensive tackle Zak Krolczyk added five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss a year ago.
There is significant inexperience at the linebacker position after the top four linebackers graduated, and the only player back with much experience is sophomore Isaiah Longino. Junior college transfers Blake Stephenson and Quindarrius Whitley will take the opening series at middle and weakside linebacker, respectively.
In the secondary, safeties Nicholas Forde and Ryan Reed return with a combined 28 games of experience, including 20 starts. After redshirting in 2017, junior Kevin Ratliff will start at the rover position. At cornerback, senior Dylan Wilson and sophomore Malik Sonnier will get the start. Sonnier moved to cornerback after playing last season at safety.
Sophomore Austyn Fendrick will handle the kicking duties following the graduation of Eric Piccione. Fendrick was 1-of-2 in field goal attempts last year, with a long of 34, missing from 53 yards. Junior Parker Pastorello, who punted 53 times last season for a 38.7 average, is back to handle those duties.
Watson, who had two returns for 33 yards in 2017, will handle the punt return duties for the Demons, while redshirt freshmen Myles Ward will join Reed on kickoff returns.
Ferguson and Shorts will be two of the biggest newcomers to watch, but Ward, Stephenson, Whitley, defensive end Landon King, center Kenny Sheldon and true freshman safety Jordan Hester are also some newcomers to watch. Hester will become the first Demons’ true freshman defensive starter on opening day this century.
“The best guys will come in and play when they are consistent with what we’re trying to do. Jordan has been that guy since July 1,” said Laird. “He has come in and done everything we’ve asked him to do. He wants to be as good as he can be every single day. You see his leadership. He may not be a vocal leader, but he’ll be the first one in everything he does. He has put himself in this position to start at A&M.”
The Demon Sports Network broadcast team of Patrick Netherton and Tony Taglavore will call the game, starting with a 30-minute pregame show at 7. The network flagship station is 100.7 FM KZBL in Natchitoches with News Radio 710 KEEL AM in Shreveport, KBUCK 105.5 FM in Alexandria and 103.1 FM KWLA in Leesville-Many as affiliates. Free audio is available at NSUDemons.com.
Next weekend, NSU opens its home schedule at Turpin Stadium against Grambling on Saturday night, Sept. 8, at 6 o’clock.