While Northwestern State football coach Jay Thomas has shortened the length of Saturday morning’s first major scrimmage action in preseason camp, there’s no drop in importance as Demons coaches begin to make depth chart decisions after 10 days of workouts.
NSU will begin practice at the normal 8 a.m. Saturday, but 11-on-11 scrimmage competition may start as late as 9:30 in Turpin Stadium, said Thomas. What happens over the following hour could significantly shape the Demons’ lineup for the Sept. 3 opener at home against Southeastern Louisiana, he said.
“It’s huge. It sets up the next couple of weeks of preparation for the opening game. This may be the last opportunity to get some live work for guys who we need to see to make personnel decisions,” said Thomas. “We have to balance that against putting our players out there for maybe one play too much and risking injuries. The older I get, the more nervous I get about that.”
Bumps and bruises at linebacker, one of the team’s more competitive position battles, spurred the choice for more practice time and less free-flowing scrimmage action. Overall, Thomas is very pleased with the progress he’s seen.
“It’s been a great week. The guys have taken to the task at hand and we’ve had good practices, gotten a lot of work done. You see it all starting to come together,” he said. “It’s still early but we’re on the right pace.”
While the Demons place heavy emphasis on special teams daily, there’s not much mystery about the focal figures in the kicking game. NSU returns All-American all-purpose player Ed Eagan, who already holds the school and is nearing the Southland Conference kickoff return career record, and is on the verge of setting the Demons’ career punt return mark. Senior kicker Chris Moore and senior punter Andy Wickman are two-year starters.
They were the prominent players last year as Northwestern State dramatically improved in Southland Conference and NCAA special teams rankings. The Demons led the FCS in punt return defense, giving up just nine yards in 2014. Moore broke three school records and threatened others while winning one game (with a game-ending 48-yarder at Louisiana Tech) and clinching others with late field goals. Eagan was second nationally with a 181-yard all-purpose average.
Special teams coordinator August Mangin is in his second year in charge and believes his troops can measure up to last year’s performance, and hopefully improve.
“The guys know we won’t surprise anybody after last year. They have really stepped up their game anticipating the challenges ahead,” he said.
Eagan’s explosiveness is not just due to his special talents, said Mangin, but also to the credit of the other players on NSU’s return teams.
“The guys who block for him on punt return and kick return know how good Ed is, and he knows they help get him into the open,” said Mangin. “One guy I think deserves recognition is (senior running back) Matthew Flores. He’s kind of Ed’s sidekick as the offside returner, and without that guy, a lot of the big play opportunities Ed converts might not happen.”
Mostly, special teams play is an ensemble performance that requires unselfish, hard-working, hustling players who execute assignments repeatedly.
“The unsung hero is where it’s at. We have about 10 of them on each unit. Besides the kicker, punter and Ed, it’s a collective effort to do this at a high level and our guys buy into that concept.”
Moore and Wickman had breakthrough seasons as juniors, and Mangin thinks their best is yet to come.
“The success they had early in the season gave them confidence going forward. Now they’ve done a great job working with our strength and conditioning staff to reshape themselves, day after day, into a more ideal physiques for kickers and punters.”
Holder Tuff McClain is back, and so is 2013 holder Brandon Monrose, out last year with a leg injury. The only apparent personnel question to resolve is replacing graduated snappers Hunter Graves and Kevin Garza. Redshirt freshman Cody Nelson and junior college transfer Ryan Woehlert are the contenders.
“Both are very talented and I have the utmost confidence in them, and whoever we send out there will do the job,” said Mangin.
“It’s been no different going into the second week of camp than it was last year with Hunter and Garza,” said Moore. “These guys have done a very good job and I feel very good about them.”
Both Wickman and Moore said they’ve gotten lots of help from past teammates and coaches as they’ve developed.
“(Former kicker John) Shaughnessy and (former punter Nic) Russo taught me a lot, showed me the way, and now it’s surreal, with only a few months left in my football career,” said Wickman. “I started rough as a freshman and those guys and my coaches worked with me trying to get this meticulous art of punting down, and I think now I finally have it down pat.”
Said Moore: “The biggest step was becoming comfortable and calm, not overkicking the ball to prove leg strength. It’s all about consistency. Coach Mangin and coach (Chris) Forestier have done a great job teaching me the best approach, and (strength and conditioning) coach (Evan) Coachman and coach (Dustin) Chadwick have taught flexibility exercises and different tricks of the trade to make me more efficient.”
Mangin’s impact has been pivotal, said Wickman.
“He’s been a huge factor for our special teams. The success we had last year on special teams has a lot to do with the coaching we get and the emphasis that is put on the kicking game here.”
The Demon punter is proud of NSU being the FCS’s best at punt coverage last year, but takes little credit.
“That was all the other 10 guys giving me protection, and then getting downfield to cover and get in the returner’s face,” said Wickman. “They made me look good, most importantly made our team look good.”
He laughingly said he hates his job.
“It’s the worst position in sports. I’m only on the field when the offense doesn’t work. But when I’m called upon, it’s my job to give the other team a long field and make it easier on our defense,” said Wickman. “My goal is to not have to do a lot this year and to answer the bell when it rings.”