MARTIN, Tennessee – Senior quarterback Shelton Eppler’s personality usually is best described as even-keeled.
When it comes to Thursday’s season opener at UT Martin, Eppler can sum up his feelings in one word.
“I’m very excited,” Eppler said, using a word echoed by his head coach and several teammates as the 2019 season draws closer. “We finally get to hit someone other than ourselves. I know our defense is very excited. I’m ready to go out and see what this team is made of.”
The Demons (5-6 in 2018) and Skyhawks (2-9) meet at 6:30 p.m. inside Hardy M. Graham Stadium. The game can be seen on ESPN+ and can be heard on the Demon Sports Network, flagshipped by 94.9 FM The River in Natchitoches.
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Eppler’s excitement may be slightly out of character, but it is echoed by head coach Brad Laird, who kicks off his second season in charge of his alma mater.
“We’re all excited about game week,” Laird said. “Even as we’ve implemented UT Martin, it’s still been Northwestern State vs. Northwestern State at practice. We’ve put in more scout team work, but until we’re able to take the field, to be somewhere else other than Turpin Stadium, you don’t really get to feel it.
“You’re always excited for that first week. This is a Thursday game, so things are a little different, but I’m excited for our team and this opportunity.”
Northwestern State begins the season on the road for the fourth straight season and the fifth time in the past seven seasons.
Laird said the location of the game doesn’t matter to him.
“I like road games,” he said. “Sure, we all wish we could play all 12 at home. We love playing at Turpin Stadium. We love our fans. We love our community. Road trips help build team chemistry.
“On this trip, when we leave Wednesday morning, our guys will be together from then until when we get back around 8 a.m. Friday. We get to talk about different things. On the bus, we’re not always talking about football. It’s an opportunity to talk about different things and do different things.”
One of those could be to start the season with a road victory.
Both the Demons and Skyhawks reside in conferences that produced multiple FCS playoff teams a season ago. Three Southland teams reached the 24-team tournament while Ohio Valley Conference members Jacksonville State and Southeast Missouri State were part of the postseason.
The success of their conferences puts NSU’s and UT Martin’s 2018 records in perspective.
“We’re better than we were last year,” Laird said. “We’re still 0-0, just like UT Martin. They were 2-9, but they lost five games by seven points or less, two in overtimes. They lost by six to Jacksonville State, who’s preseason No. 6, in overtime. Each team is different, but they got better form last year to this year, just like we did.”
Eppler gives the Demons a strong linchpin offensively after throwing for 2,639 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first season after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College. The Demons also return running backs Jared West and Stadford Anderson, who combined for 1,075 rushing yards.
West and Anderson will run behind an experienced offensive line that features four seniors in the rotation. Similarly, the Demons’ defensive line is a veteran group that will give Northwestern State a chance to be strong where it matters most.
On top of that, the entire Demons coaching staff returns intact, which has helped all three phases of the game entering Year 2 of the Laird era.
“When coach Laird became coach, we had a meeting and guys didn’t show up on time,” senior punter Parker Pastorello said. “We kept having that meeting until everyone was there on time. Everyone had to buy in if they wanted to be on this team and get to the point where we are now. The culture has shifted from when I first got here. Last year, we had that shift. This year, we’re ready to take it all. I’m excited about it.”