When the 2019 Northwestern State football team kicks off spring practice March 7, 41 lettermen, including 13 starters, return from a squad that provided plenty of excitement and accomplishment in coach Brad Laird’s first season.
Only 16 letterwinners are not back to pursue the Demons’ first winning record since 2008 and first playoff appearance in 15 seasons.
NSU will go through 15 practices, including full scrimmages on March 16 and March 23, before wrapping up spring ball with the 30th Annual Joe Delaney Bowl spring game on Saturday, March 30 at Turpin Stadium.
“The first thing you want to determine during spring practice is what is this 2019 team going to be about? What’s our identity?” said Laird. “We started in January with our strength and conditioning program, and what we’ve seen so far has us really excited about what lies ahead, beginning March 7.”
Led by stalwarts like All-America safety Hayden Bourgeois, prolific quarterback Shelton Eppler and productive running back Jared West, NSU could make 2019 a breakthrough season.
But those and the other returning starters – seven on defense, for a Purple Swarm unit that was 12th nationally with 26 turnovers forced last fall – must work to retain their spots.
“Having a good core of guys with experience in the conference, in some tight games, is always encouraging as you go into a new season. But we don’t want anybody to get comfortable where they are now,” said Laird. “The competition we’ve started in our strength and conditioning program is going to lead to competition in those 15 practices. One thing we understand as coaches and players is that competition will bring out the best in you and I look forward to seeing that in those practices.”
The Demons coaching staff is counting on new and inexperienced players to emerge during March’s practices, but the veterans will take the lead in setting the tone in spring ball.
“The opportunity for young guys to step up, whether they redshirted last year or played in a limited role, is there,” said Laird. “It’s also important to see the guys who did play last year show us how much they’ve progressed since the end of the season. Once we’ve seen them through 15 practices, we’ll have a good idea of what this team is going to be about.”
Before spring drills begin, the coaching staff is assessing strategy and approaches used in 2018, when the Demons finished just three points shy of a winning record. NSU won three of its last four, sweeping nearby rivals McNeese and Stephen F. Austin for the first time since 2004, and posted a 49-48 win at Lamar, which recovered to earn an at-large FCS playoff berth.
“Our league produced three playoff teams last year, and two of them, Lamar and Incarnate Word, got to postseason for the first time ever. The Southland Conference is extremely competitive year after year,” said Laird. “Our goal is to be one of those surprise teams next fall and that means getting better in every aspect.
“We’re looking at what we did well last year, and what we need to correct to decide who we’re going to be offensively, defensively and on special teams. There will be a lot of similarities but there will be changes, as we look for things we can do better as coaches, not only schematically, but in how we teach, and organize practice,” he said. “We’re excited about the preparation for spring practice.”
The spring practice plan will send the Demons out to work in Turpin Stadium on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday for four straight weeks, except for the first one when they begin drills on Thursday, March 7. Weekday practices will begin at 4 p.m. with the Saturday sessions set for 10 a.m., and all are open to the public.