by Matt Vines, NSU Sports Information Graduate Assistant
LAKE CHARLES – Every season in every conference across the country, football coaches describe preseason league polls as instruments of entertaining conjecture with no real predictive value.
Northwestern State was picked fifth in the Southland Conference Preseason Coaches Poll, but coach Jay Thomas and the Demons hope that this poll is accurate.
It’s not that the Demons want to see themselves fifth in the final SLC standings, but NSU has won three of its four regular season Southland titles (1988, 1997 and 2004) and made two additional playoff appearances (2001 and 2002) when picked to finish fifth in the preseason.
“Being picked in that spot is kind of ironic, and hopefully it works out like those years did,” said Thomas, whose 6-6 records in his first two seasons as NSU head coach broke a streak of four consecutive losing campaigns. “We feel like we have the team that can get it done, but it will have to come together.
“A lot of that happens in camp, so hopefully we can pull that together really quick with some of the new faces. I think it’s fair for us to be in that (fifth spot), but maybe we can be that dark horse in the end.”
Senior receiver Ed Eagan (purple shirt) will spearhead a stable of offensive weapons that is arguably the deepest in the Southland Conference.
SLC Commissioner Tom Burnett joked with NSU receiver Ed Eagan, who is picked at three different positions on the conference preseason team, that he’s surprised to learn that Eagan is just one person at Tuesday night’s dinner.
Eagan, who appeared as a first-team receiver, punt returner and all-purpose player, said he doesn’t have a favorite responsibility among the many duties he performs for the Demons.
“That’s a hard question,” said Eagan, who started his college career as a cornerback after intercepting five passes in one high school game at Holy Cross in New Orleans. “I’ve been switching around as a corner and receiver, but punt returner has been my one constant as a position. I like receiver as well.
“(Having played cornerback) I can see what they are trying to do to me, but I’ll do whatever my team needs me to do … I do like scoring touchdowns more than getting hit.”
The only question on NSU’s offense is what quarterback will be tossing Eagan and others the ball.
Former LSU and Vanderbilt quarterback Stephen Rivers transferred to NSU this summer, throwing his hat into a ring that included as many as five other quarterbacks this spring.
Eagan, who’s been named a preseason All-American as an all-purpose player, said he’s developed a strong relationship with Rivers in a short time, but he knows quarterbacks like sophomore J.D. Almond (Haughton), junior Daniel Hazlewood and junior college transfer Joel Blumenthal will compete well with Rivers.
Thomas characterized the competition as a “huge battle” heading into fall camp, which begins Aug. 6, just a few weeks before the Demons kick off their regular season against defending Southland co-champion Southeastern on Sept. 3 in Turpin Stadium.
“Adding Stephen into that mix makes it a lot more heated,” Thomas said. “Joel is very talented and athletic with a very strong arm, and he’ll have three more years with us.
“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. Almond has the talent and moxie I look for in a quarterback to handle what I call the gray elements of the game. Hazlewood is a talented guy as well. It might be a difficult decision in the end, but it will be fun, different and exciting to think about all the things we can do. Whoever our quarterback or our quarterback combination will be, he won’t have to win the game by himself. We just need him to be a good distributor of the football and make good decisions.”
Leading a defensive contingent with a mix of youth and experience, Armstrong said the defense is adjusting to new defensive coordinator Daryl Daye. Armstrong, who was recruited by Thomas when Thomas was NSU’s defensive line coach, will play for his fourth defensive coordinator in his NSU career.
“It’s always been a challenge changing defensive coordinators, but even with the changes, we’ve had similar schemes,” said Armstrong, who is one of three Natchitoches natives likely to be starters. “It hasn’t been too hard for the defense to pick up. Daye is a great guy, and he has a great personality. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Likely more challenging than the defensive coordinator changes was the defensive line battling a rash of injuries, which include six defensive linemen missing significant time during the season.
Armstrong will anchor a deep front that will play in front of relatively experienced linebackers and safeties.
Thomas coached under Daye at Division II Missouri Southern and with Daye at Nicholls State, calling Daye his best friend.
“It’s been great to have your best buddy working with you on staff. “It was great having (former defensive coordinator) Mike Lucas, a former head coach as well, on staff.
“It’s very comforting having Daye there, and it’s been different because I’m used to sitting on the side of the table with him at the head of the table. But I think the kids are really buying into his personality, and he’s a gung-ho coach who likes to get after it and has fun with the kids. Our defense is talented but young in a lot of areas. We do have a number of guys back who have played a ton, but he’s got some work to do there. His wisdom will be great to have.”