From the sound of it ending, Saturday afternoon’s two-hour workout could have been a Northwestern State football practice, as about 100 players gathered at midfield in Turpin Stadium and chanted “D-E-M-O-N-S.”
But the players were wearing many different colors of gear from dozens of Louisiana and Texas high schools, attending the Jay Thomas Team Camp, which wraps up a four-day run Monday afternoon in the heat of summer.
The event kicked off Friday combined with the final segment of Thomas’ traveling one-day camps, which included visits to work with hundreds of prep players near their schools in Shreveport, Monroe, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans last month. New Northwestern State president Dr. Jim Henderson dropped by to check out the action on Turpin’s turf.
Immersing the high school players in the Demons’ culture is an important element of the camp, said NSU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ben Norton.
“This is a great opportunity for young men to come to our campus, learn a little more about Northwestern State University. We’re staying in the dorms, we’re eating in the cafeteria, we’re using the athletic facilities,” said Norton. “They’re getting a taste of what the campus has to offer, and along the way they’re having a heck of a good time, enjoying their summer, learning some sound fundamental football techniques and also going through character building opportunities as well.
“We would love to have them come back here to see us play this fall and down the road, perhaps play for us, or at least be part of our student body at a great university,” he said.
Many of the campers have aspirations of playing college football. Getting advice, encouragement and instruction from the NSU coaching staff is one benefit of the camp. Receivers coach Derrick Foster has been involved with every level of college football: as a record-shattering receiver at Southwest (Missouri) Baptist, and as a coach at Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference, at Division II power Valdosta State, and in the FCS where his receivers helped NSU set 30 school records last season.
Foster’s advice to the players dreaming of playing at the next level: “It’s about effort and finishing, most of all. You give 110 percent of effort and time and dedicate it to this game, and that goes a long way. A player’s talent level is important, but the difference moving forward is him honing in, focusing on basic fundamentals, perfecting his craft, doing what the next man is not doing, and that gets you over the hump and on the way to your goals.”
But first, the players are focused on the season ahead, especially Friday nights in the fall.
“Each practice we’re trying to teach these guys something they can take back home and put to good use this season, especially those seniors,” said Foster. “Each day you want to win the day, prepare as well as you can for the season ahead, because you want to succeed and it takes that level of commitment. Hopefully they learn something from me and pick up some of what I teach our receivers at Northwestern.”
The energy level was obvious as campers ran off the field with the sun boring down, and it was contagious, said Norton.
“Oh, this is fun,” he said, grinning. “This is as good as it gets: heat, fundamental football, grind, it’s what it’s all about.”
For NSU, the camp is a nod to tradition. After Turpin Stadium opened in 1977, then-Demon coach A.L. Williams attracted current NFL stars such as Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson, Mean Joe Green and more, including Demon greats Sidney Thornton and Petey Perot, to work with high school players. While getting NFL players involved today is cost-prohibitive, Thomas adjusted the format after two years of hosting a lineman camp modeled after a long-successful big man’s camp in Thibodaux.
“This goes back to 1988 and my first time working the O-line and D-line camp in Thibodaux with (iconic LSU defensive line) coach Pete Jenkins and (offensive line) coach Kenny Ferro, who played on our undefeated 1966 team for coach (Jack) Clayton. We’ve set this up based on that model, and now we’ve added the skill position guys to make it a team camp. I think it’s going to be a big hit,” said Thomas.
“We hope the kids are getting a lot out of it. This is good prep for August for them, and it’s good prep for us as coaches before our preseason camp begins. We’re back in coaching mode.”
Most importantly, Thomas said the campers are thriving.
“We’re getting a lot of drill work, a lot of fundamental instruction, and you see the kids picking up what is being taught as we go along. Despite the heat, their enthusiasm is impressive and exciting,” he said.