by Matt Vines
Northwestern State’s passing offense in 2014 prolifically set 23 different program records behind the quick release of senior quarterback Zach Adkins.
NSU will have a new signal caller under center this season, but the other half of the passing equation – the receiving corps – returns nearly intact for the 2015 campaign.
That experienced group, which returns its top four pass catchers and eight of the top 11, aims to duplicate an effort that resulted in single-season program records of 2,864 passing yards, 262 completions and a 67.2 percent completion rate.
“That’s most definitely (the challenge for us,),” said junior receiver Shakeir Ryan, whose 38 receptions ranked second on the team. “Where they’ve got us ranked in the Southland Conference (fifth in the coaches’ preseason poll and sixth in the sports information director poll) is a challenge, too.
“We’re hyped up, amped up about that. We feel like we’ll do just as good (as last year).”
Senior Ed Eagan has already etched his name on several NSU receiving records (73 receptions in a single season, 13 catches and 238 receiving yards in single games), and he’s likely to add more marks early in the 2015 season.
Eagan, who began his college career as a cornerback, is eight receptions shy of breaking NSU’s career mark (126, Derrick Doyle, 2003-06) and 1,164 all-purpose yards shy of the school’s career record (5,025, Toby Zeigler, 2002-05).
The humble Eagan brushes off record talk, adding he’s just as excited to be a leader of a veteran receiver corps looking to make its own mark.
“It helps to have other veterans around you, because you compete and make each other better,” said Eagan, whose 6.1 receptions per game led the Southland and ranked 24th in the country. “To have other guys know what they are doing, they help you out and you help them out.
“We have some younger guys that bring a lot to the table, too. They can come in and help when we need a break, and they can work their way into starting roles on this team, too.”
Eagan added 908 yards and six touchdowns in 2014 as a versatile target that stretches the field at just 5-foot-10.
Other veteran targets include senior Cody Jones (29 catches for 353 yards and six touchdowns) and junior Tuff McClain (35 catches for 430 yards and four touchdowns).
Jones said the receivers joke with Eagan about the likely records, but Jones and others know they’ll get their chances to make plays.
“You know it will come your way. You just have to play your role,” Jones said. “If the play calls for you to block, you block. If it calls for you to run a route, you run it hard because sometimes it’s opening something up for another teammate.
“We’ve gotten better at sticking together (as a unit). If one of us has a drop, which is rare, we’re right there picking each other up. It’s easier to play when you’ve got guys like that.”
Receivers coach Derrick Foster said defenses can’t just focus on Eagan.
Aside from proven veterans, receivers like senior Brandon Monrose (missed 2014 with a broken ankle), sophomore Bobby Chan-Chan (transfer from NAIA-member Georgetown College), junior transfer William Mafi II (All-American at San Joaquin Delta College), sophomore Bryson Bourque (two catches for 32 yards) and sophomore Cameron Lazare have made plays in offseason scrimmages.
“There’s a competition every day. For the starters, it’s their job to keep, but if you let the next guy behind you take your job, then it’s your loss,” Foster said. “We can only put three or four (receivers) out there at one time, but at the end of the day, we’re the same group, and we’re pushing each other for greatness.
“All the weapons we do have allow us to mix it up a little bit. We can change the pace a little bit and throw a different guy out there so the defense can’t adjust to just one guy. That’ll help us with the depth we have on this team, and we’ll use that as much as we can.”
Chan-Chan (6-0) and Mafi II (6-2) add size and deep-play attributes to an otherwise smaller unit.
But Foster added that tight ends like senior Zach White (seven catches for 80 yards and a touchdown) and sophomore Chase Hawthorne are pass-catching threats across and down the field as well.
“They can open up the field for us,” Foster said. “White and Hawthorne are big bodies with soft hands, and guys like (freshman Charles Vaughn III) and Damian Boone have potential, too.”
Including pass-catching threats at running back like junior De’Mard Llorens (18 catches for 177 yards and two scores) and senior Daniel Taylor (10 catches for 63 yards), the Demons return the vast majority of their receiving offense.
Twenty of NSU’s 28 touchdowns, 214 of the team’s 262 receptions and 2,379 of the 2,864 receiving yards accumulated last year were produced by returners.
Along with a relatively experienced offensive line and a deep running back stable, the receivers want to prove that the NSU offense will produce no matter who’s under center.
PRACTICE NOTES: Demons don full pads for first time Tuesday
Northwestern State has participated in several thud practices in which some contact is allowed, but the familiar sound of full pads will ring out Tuesday for the first time.
Demons head coach Jay Thomas, who is entering his third season, says Tuesday’s practice will set the tone for the rest of the week.
“(Monday) was our best day by far, and it’s credit to those guys fighting through extreme heat,” Thomas said. “We know (Tuesday) will be another hot day, and we’re excited about seeing where our guys are at this point.
“It will be a great lead-in for the rest of the week, and hopefully we can work toward Saturday, the date of our first scrimmage.”