Throughout the truncated spring practice and into the fall, Northwestern State head coach Brad Laird preached the importance of special teams and the elevation of Jake Olsen to special teams coordinator.
A little more than midway through the first quarter of Saturday morning’s Purple-White Game at Turpin Stadium, Laird was proven prophetic.
Freshman Dante Thomas fielded a punt on the run, made one cut to the outside and took it 55 yards to the end zone, setting the tone for a 28-7 win for the White squad.
“Going back to naming Jake Olsen special teams coordinator, we have put a lot of emphasis on special teams,” Laird said. “The punt return got everything going. Midway through the first quarter, it got the momentum going and really kick-started the White Team onto victory. There were a lot of good things in all three phases we’ll be able to see on film.”
Thomas, a freshman from John Curtis High School, started the scoring after each defense had recorded at least one stop. His touchdown came on the second punt from the Purple Team.
“It was exciting,” said Thomas, who added two tackles and a half-tackle for loss. “I had to make a play coming fast. Sometimes you have to take a risk. I got to the sideline, and I knew I had to get on the bus. You take the good with the bad, but when you take a risk, you gotta make a play.”
Thomas’ big play sparked a 28-0 White Team run in the first half that included a pair of touchdowns – one passing, one rushing – from quarterback Zachary Clement.
Clement, a redshirt freshman from Lafayette Christian Academy, scored on a 15-yard run after escaping the pocket while also using his legs to set up his a 14-yard touchdown pass to running back Scooter Adams.
On the scoring pass that put the White Team up 14-0 with 2:35 to play in the first half, Clement was flushed out of the pocket to his left and improvised a soft, arcing pass to Adams, who easily found his way into the end zone.
“I saw they brought some pressure to my backside, so I rolled out to the other side,” Clement said. “I saw Scooter pop, so I just flipped it over the linebacker to get it to him. It worked for us.”
All three quarterbacks who saw action had a hand in at least one scoring drive as Bryce Rivers capped the White Team’s scoring with a 1-yard run on the final play of the first half and Kaleb Fletcher connected with senior receiver Gavin Landry on a 58-yard score for the only points of the second and the Purple Team’s lone points of the game.
Clement finished 5-for-7 for 90 yards and a touchdown while Fletcher went 9-for-14 for 122 yards and a score. Rivers was the day’s swing quarterback, playing for both teams. He was a combined 5-for-9 for 68 yards.
Clement credited offensive coordinator Brad Smiley and quarterbacks coach Anthony Scelfo as well as his fellow quarterbacks for creating an atmosphere that has allowed all three signal callers to find their footing as they follow record-setting Shelton Eppler, whose two-year Demon career ended in 2019.
“Coach Smiley and coach Scelfo are always there for me,” Clement said. “They’ve helped me get a better feel for the offense. We have a really close (quarterback) room. There are four of us, including Jacob Barrett, and we push each other every day to get the best out of each other. That’s the best thing we can do.”
Clement and his White Team offense had the benefit of not having to face junior linebacker Jomard Valsin, who capped a strong fall with a five-tackle day that included a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
Much like Thomas, however, Valsin’s biggest impact did not come on play from scrimmage.
“The play that stands out, and I said this about him probably three or four practices ago, was the tackle he made on a kickoff,” Laird said. “Everyone sees him lining up on the outside and blitzing and making plays down the field and tackles for losses, but I see what he’s doing on special teams. He’s taken that to another level.
“He’s taken his game to a different level defensively, but what he’s doing on special teams is taking this team to another level. That’s what you expect from somebody who has the experience he has. He has the ability now to affect the players around him.”
Valsin’s five tackles matched Kevin Davis Jr. for the White Team lead while Landon King’s six tackles for the Purple Team were a game high.
Valsin echoed Laird’s thoughts about becoming a leader, especially on a defense that returns more than half its starters from a season ago.
“I feel like the guys look up to me,” Valsin said. “(Defensive coordinator) Coach (Mike) Lucas has talked to me numerous times, telling me I have to keep doing well because we have young guys who look up to me. I have to be a leader in order to get this program where it needs to be.”
The Demons will hold their final fall workout of the fall Wednesday. Northwestern State begins its six-game spring schedule Feb. 20 at Lamar. Its first home game of the spring season will be March 6 against Nicholls.
White 28, Purple 7
W – Dante Thomas 55 punt return (Daniel Justino kick)
W – Scooter Adams 14 pass from Zach Clement (Justino kick)
W – Clement 15 run (Justino kick)
W – Bryce Rivers 1 run (Justino kick)
P – Gavin Landry 58 pass from Kaleb Fletcher (Eddie Godina kick)
RUSHING: White — Clement 4-30, 1 TD; Adams 5-23; Curtis Williams 5-16; Rivers 4-10, 1 TD; Aubrey Scott 2-6. Purple — Erik Hart 4-16, Trevor Morgan 2-12, Rivers 1-(-)5, Fletcher 4-(-)5.
PASSING: White – Clement 5-7-0 90 1 TD; Rivers 3-5-0 51. Purple – Fletcher 9-14-0 122 1 TD; Rivers 2-4-0 17.
RECEIVING: White – Marquise Bridges 2-30, Jalen Willis 2-28, Coby McGee 1-44, Aaron Howell 1-17, Adams 1-14, TD, Levar Gumms 1-8. Purple – Landry 5-90, 1 TD, David Fitzwater 3-20, Hart 1-14, Javon Antonio 1-10, Morgan 1-5.
White: Kevin Davis Jr. 5 tackles; Jomard Valsin 5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU; Malik Williams 4 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL; Kyle Moore 4 tackles; Dante Thomas 2 tackles, 0.5 TFL; Nick Allen 2 tackles, 0.5 TFL; Nathalohn Nanai 1 tackle, 1 sack, 1 TFL; Isaiah Longino 1 tackle, 1 TFL; Cedric Anderson 1 tackle; Natea “Tay” Coleman 1 tackle; Trey Williams 1 tackle; Fred Lee 1 tackle; Ty Cormier 1 tackle; Chandler Moncrief 1 PBU.
Purple: Landon King 6 tackles, 0.5 TFL: Keshawn Jackson 5 tackles; PJ Herrington 4 tackles, 1 PBU; Malik Carey 2 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR; Rashuad Powell 2 tackles, 1 TFL: Keenan Leachman 2 tackles; Race Moser 2 tackles; Princeton Malbrue 2 tackles; Johnathan Daigle 1 tackle; Tobias Williams 1 tackle; Josh Landrum 1 tackle; Patrick Heard 1 tackle; Ray Johnson 1 tackle, 0.5 TFL; Darius Whitfield 1 tackle; JaBralen Yarber 1 tackle; William Hooper 1 tackle.