Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations
HOUSTON – The Southland Conference preseason football polls flashed on the screen inside the Hilton Post Oak hotel at around 9:15 Thursday morning.
Northwestern State was chosen 10th among the 11 teams, but to head coach Brad Laird, that selection was simply background noise.
“They put the same rankings up last year, and you had teams at the top and teams at the bottom,” said Laird, who enters his second season as the head coach at his alma mater. “I can tell you (Incarnate Word coach) Eric Morris is glad that preseason rankings don’t mean it ends up the way it comes out. At this time of the year, we all have high expectations, no matter what the board said behind me at 9:15. I tell them to be where your feet are. Our feet are here. All we can control is winning the day, worrying about the now. We have to be consistent and believe in the process.”
Like many coaches, Laird told the assembled crowd at the Southland Conference Football Media Day he does not put much stock in preseason polls.
Part of that could come from the example set by Incarnate Word a season ago when the Cardinals were picked 10th before sharing the regular-season conference championship and making their first FCS Playoff appearance.
Another factor in Laird’s confidence – how Northwestern State finished the 2018 season. The Demons collected three wins in their final four games and made it consecutive years in which they improved their overall record.
“The thing I finished the season talking about was consistency,” Laird said. “This day and age, you see staff turnover. We had the luxury of keeping our staff together, and that’s important to have from Year 1 to Year 2. Both coordinators, Brad Smiley and Mike Lucas, I really leaned on them the last year and a half.
“The momentum of winning three of our last four, we really took it into spring ball. I’m really excited about what the 15 practices in spring practice and what that brought to our team. We carried that over into July, and hopefully we’ll continue to carry it into fall camp.”
What the Demons have found in the past 12 months is a renewed attention to detail, which showed in late-season victories against Houston Baptist, McNeese and Stephen F. Austin.
The first two of those wins came at home by a total of seven points, reiterating the importance of even the smallest details.
“All the credit for that goes to coach Laird,” said senior offensive lineman Chris Zirkle, a second-team preseason all-conference selection. “When he came in and we had our first meeting after Christmas break, guys didn’t show up on time and he canceled the whole meeting. It took us until the third day to get it right, and it grew from there. Now you see guys cleaning up their mess, picking up towels, learning from the little mistakes we made.”
Those results, in turn, sparked a different type of leadership for the Demons, who have 20 seniors on the 2019 roster.
“We have more people holding each other accountable,” senior safety Nick Forde said. “We understand that’s important if we are going to go as far as we want to go.”
That includes starting fast in games and in the season as a whole. Northwestern State kicks off the 2019 season on Aug. 29 at UT Martin and plays three of its first four games away from Turpin Stadium.
The road-heavy early stretch – coupled with a four-game run from mid-October to early November that showcases several of the Southland’s top teams – could go a long way in determining if the Demons’ win total makes a positive leap for the third straight season.
“That four- to five-game stretch could dictate where this football team could be,” Laird said. “With seven road games, the summer and fall is so important. You leave (for road trips) on Friday, and you’re with them all weekend. That’s why team chemistry is so important, and the summer and fall will really prepare us for our seven road games this year.
“We have to start fast. In several games, we dug ourselves too big of a hole. We have to start fast and be consistent, but I really like the makeup of this team, and I look forward to what 2019 brings.”