NSU preview: Demons look to take next step under Thomas

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Schedule

9/3 Southeastern La. 6
9/12 @ La.-Lafayette 6
9/19 Miss. State 3
9/26 Cent. Ark. 6
10/3 @ UIW 6
10/17 Lamar 5
10/24 @ McNeese St. 6
10/31 @ Nicholl St. 3
11/7 Abilene Chr. 6
11/14 @ Sam Hou. St. TBA
11/21 SFA 3

Bossier Parish players
QB J.D. Almond, Haughton, So.
TE Demontre Evans, Airline, So.
DL Charlie Matthews, Airline, Fr.

After back-to-back 6-6 seasons, are the Northwestern State Demons ready to contend for a Southland Conference championship under third-year head coach Jay Thomas this season?
If you go by preseason predictions, the answer is no. NSU was picked to finish fifth in both the coaches’ and Sports Information Director polls at the conference’s media day in July.
But don’t tell Thomas that his Demons are a middle of the pack team.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Thomas said during his media day press conference. “I’m as excited as I can be about a football team.”
Wins over Football Bowl Subdivision and North Louisiana rival Louisiana Tech and SLC co-champion Sam Houston State highlighted the 2014 season, which also included several close losses.
Senior defensive end Leroy Armstrong, a preseason All-SLC selection, believes the Demons have a chance to be in the thick of things in the SLC.
“We were painfully close last year and the guys coming back understand where we fell short,” he said. “All summer long we’ve worked on finishing strong, in our conditioning program and with our mindset. We lost too many close games. We were one play away
“We ended our season losing on the last play on a long field goal and SFA and cried all the way home. It was miserable. We’ve spent the whole offseason with that feeling eating away at us and it drives you to work harder.”
Thomas will quickly get an idea of just what kind of contender his team will be. The Demons open the season at home at 6 Thursday night against co-defending champion Southeastern Louisiana. SLU is both the coaches’ and SID’s pick to win the title.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Thomas, a former head coach at Nicholls State. “I don’t know that in my head coaching career we have ever opened with a conference game. It should be exciting for the fans. I know both teams will be ready to play. There’s no doubt about it.”
NSU returns eight starters on offense and three on defense from a team that finished tied for sixth in the SLC at 4-4.
Do-everything senior Ed Eagan tops the list of offensive returnees.
Eagan was named first-team All-SLC at receiver, punt returner and all-purpose last season. He caught 73 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns. He also averaged 10 yards per punt return and 23.2 per kickoff return.
The offensive line has experience with four returning starters, including tackle Pace Murphy, a first-team preseason All-SLC selection.
One challenge is replacing quarterback Zach Adkins. Several players battled for the job during training camp, including sophomore J.D. Almond of Haughton. Other top contenders were Daniel Hazlewood and Stephen Rivers, a transfer from Vanderbilt who also spent time at LSU.
Thomas had not named a starter as of late Tuesday, but he likes what he’s seen of Almond.
“Almond has been in our program since Day 1 as a freshman, and he’s really developed well and his knowledge is starting to improve,” Thomas said. “Almond has the talent and moxie I look for in a quarterback to handle what I call the gray elements of the game.”
Daniel Taylor and De’Mard Llorens, who have scored a combined 21 TDs, lead a strong contingent of running backs. Matthew Flores should also be a contributor in the ground game.
Armstrong and safeties Adam Jones and Chase Collins are the long returning full-time starters on defense. Jones was a preseason All-SLC selection along with Jones. Armastrong had 38 tackles and led the team with nine for lost yards last season. Jones topped the SLC with five interception and was third on the team in tackles with 74.
The kicking game should be solid with the return of placekicker Chris Moore and punter Andy Wickman.

— Russell Hedges, rhedges@bossierpress.com