The interior of the defensive line might look a little different without New York Jets’ draft pick Deon Simon manning the middle, but a stroke of bad luck during the 2014 season could be paying dividends for the Demons in 2015.
Simon, a seventh-round selection, was one of three season-opening starters on the defensive line to suffer season-ending injuries by midseason. Defensive ends JeMarcus Marshall (Ouachita High) and now former Demon Justin Evans (Haynesville High) missed nearly the entire season.
While that misfortune impacted the Demons up front during a 6-6 campaign in 2014, the young linemen gained experience they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.
Defensive line coach Jake Landoll said the line is further along than it would have been without the unexpected game experience.
“It gave them a lot experience, and even a little game experience, “ Landoll said. “Most of the guys we’ve got were young, and you can’t simulate that game speed in practice.
“You can’t do it until you actually get in the game, put people in the stands and turn the lights on. The fact that we have a little of that will give us an advantage going into the season.”
Sophomore Randy Woodle (Calvary Baptist), who began the season as a walk-on but was forced to start the last four games of the season, was a key beneficiary of the unexpected playing time.
Woodle made nine tackles in a total of seven appearances, but the hands-on adjustment to the college game is even more valuable.
“It helped a lot to get into a college atmosphere and play against guys that are way bigger, way faster and way more athletic than I’m used to in high school,” Woodle said. “I can bring that experience to this season and help better the defensive line.
“I have a height disadvantage (6-foot), so I’ve got to focus on using my hands. My hands have to be a lot quicker than everybody elses. If I get locked up, I usually won’t win that battle. I have to make sure my hands are the fastest part of me and keep their (opposing offensive linemen’s) hands off me.”
Woodle, who checks in at 285 pounds, will have plenty of company in trying to fill a hole that’s featured NFL prospects the last two seasons (Simon in 2014 and Lesley Deamer III in 2013). Senior DeMarcus Drumgo has 12 career appearances under his belt, and guys like sophomore transfer Garron Featherston (6-3, 294 from Cerritos Comm unity College), sophomore Isaiah Wheeler (6-2, 301) sophomore Andrew Bluiett (6-3, 340) and redshirt freshman Josh Roberts (6-3, 312) will provide beef in the middle.
“The (defensive tackles) are still coming along – it’s a process,” Landoll said. “There’s a teaching and a coaching progression … as they come along and continue to add to their tools, some get a little frustrated.
“But when they watch themselves do something well, they go, ‘Wait a second, it’s starting to click.’ It’s starting to grow, and as that light becomes brighter and everything starts coming into focus, it’s going to gel really well for us on the inside.”
On the ends, the Demons have much more experience.
Led by Natchitoches native Leroy Armstrong, a Southland Conference preseason first-team selection, NSU won’t have the same experience problems on the edges.
Armstrong tied a team-high with 7.5 tackles for loss, and the elusive defensive end said he’s enjoyed taking on more of a leadership role.
“I’ve learned a lot from watching great guys like Deon Simon and Damon Medcafe lead, and a guy like Lesley Deamer,” Armstrong said. “With our younger defensive linemen getting to play a lot last year, they have more knowledge of the game.
“Once you pick up the speed of the game, which they did, it helps a lot. As for myself, I’m playing my blocks better and focusing on the playbook more. I’m studying and learning more.”
Marshall, a junior, is slated to occupy the other end spot as he attempts to make a full recovery from back surgery. He played just three games this past season, but he was selected to the College Sports Journal FCS All-Freshman All-America team in 2013.
“(Leroy and JeMarcus) are kind of like our voices in the locker room,” Landoll said. “They handle any of the (problems).
“Those guys have been watching Deon, Medcafe and Simon – watching the way they work, how they dress when they go to class. But much bigger than just coming out here and watching how they practice is how conduct themselves in class and in society – the football part and the way we work is just lagniappe.
“As long as we get great effort and attitude, everybody understands they fit somewhere in that defensive line room.”
The Demons have some experienced depth with sophomore Dannie Harmon (12 appearances, three starts) and junior transfers Diontre Thomas (ULM) and Darren Batiste (UL Lafayette).