Change in mentality has Demons feeling confident

Nearly a month later, Northwestern State football coach Brad Laird still thinks about his team’s Week 2 loss to Grambling.

The reason, however, has changed.

“I reference that a lot, because we learned a lot in that game,” Laird said. “One being to play the full 60 minutes. Emotionally, there will be highs and lows but play the next play. That’s the mentality these young men have had, and it shows.”

It has shown in the past two games — both Southland Conference victories that pushed Northwestern State to its first 2-0 start in league play since 2005.

The seeds of that quick start in conference play were laid in the first three weeks of the season, all of which saw Northwestern State come out on the wrong side of the final score.

“You go back to those first three weeks, we did a good job of seeing the thing we needed to fix – players and coaches,” Laird said. “We’re showing we were there to get them fixed. Our guys did that – coaches and players. It’s been nice to see the mentality in practice and see how these young men have prepared to give themselves the opportunity to win against on Saturday.”

As the Demons (2-3) prepare for Saturday’s 2 p.m. non-conference road matchup with Eastern Illinois (1-3), they do so with a different feeling permeating the locker room.

Northwestern State folded in 30 new players this offseason, and the past two weeks have served to show the bonds are strengthening throughout the roster.

“People are just tired of losing,” said sophomore linebacker Jared Pedraza, who recorded a season-high 11 tackles in this past Saturday’s 36-33 win against Nicholls. “People are tired of what’s happened the past few years. We have 30-plus new guys. They came from winning cultures. We’re trying to start something new here.”

Some simple math helped the Demons climb out of their early-season doldrums.

“We had to look ourselves in the mirror and do our one of 11 – do our jobs,” said running back Kennieth Lacy, a transfer from Kilgore College. “Play hard, play physical, play fast.”

The shift in mentality has produced results – especially once the Demons’ focus turned to more inwardly.

“For our guys, we started this mentality a couple of weeks ago, just looking at what we can do this week to be 1-0,” Laird said. “Kind of a faceless opponent. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. It’s more about us controlling the things we can control – preparing to be the best team we can be Saturday.”

As new faces like Lacy have settled in, so have the veteran Demons – most of whom dealt with the first coordinator changes of their NSU careers.

Pedraza is one of those.

A fourth-year sophomore, Pedraza enjoyed a breakout 2021 campaign he capped with a four-sack performance in a season-finale win against McNeese.

Five games into his first season under defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Weston Glaser, Pedraza shares the team lead with 36 tackles and paces the Purple Swarm defense with five tackles for loss.

The increased comfort for Pedraza and the defense mirrors the Demons’ climb over the past two weeks.

“The beginning of the season was a slow start,” Pedraza said. “It didn’t go how we planned offensively or defensively. After that third game (a loss at Southern Miss), we met as a team. We decided we weren’t going to do that anymore. We started going harder.

“We trusted each other, and everything’s picked up. Everyone’s making plays. When the defense makes a stop, the offense goes out and scores. When the offense scores, we go out and make a stop. It goes hand in hand.”

Photo: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services