Freshmen find their footing for Demons as open week arrives

Through eight games of a college football season, few freshmen feel like their class designation is an accurate one.

That sentiment can be applied to several on the Northwestern State roster.

While neither tight end Travon Jones nor cornerback Dante Thomas are true freshmen, the pair have had their moments through the first eight weeks of the season although the two entered the season in very different situations.

Thomas, a redshirt freshman from Hammond, had longtime Demons Shemar Bartholomew, William Hooper and Cedric Anderson ahead of him on the depth chart at cornerback.

Jones, meanwhile, transferred from Chattanooga, joining an offense that had to replace its top four pass catchers as well as every catch made by a tight end in the 2021 season.

“It wasn’t too bad,” Thomas said. “We’ve got a lot of veterans on the team. They helped me adapt quickly and (assistant head coach and cornerbacks coach De’Von Lockett) got me ready to play early.”

As injuries hit the cornerback room, Thomas stepped in and stepped up.

A product of Louisiana prep football power John Curtis Christian School, Thomas made his first start of the season Oct. 15 at Houston Christian and produced his first career interception, one that helped set up NSU’s 24-point first quarter.

While cornerbacks are asked to have short memories in certain instances, Thomas’ recall of his pick was crisp.

“Coach called a Cover 3, and they ran a post-wheel concept,” Thomas said. “I played the post and baited the wheel and made a play on the ball.”

Thomas’ road to the starting lineup took a detour, one that led him back to Northwestern State – his home from National Signing Day 2021 forward.

“He’s a unique story,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “He was here as part of our signing class a couple of years ago, went to junior college and found out sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the other said. While he was here, he was great. He did things the right way. When he wanted to come back, we said, ‘Heck, yeah.’ He didn’t burn any bridges. It was awesome to get him back and see him contribute.”

Thomas credited the assistance from the veterans in the cornerback room – along with Lockett’s coaching – for helping him settle in quickly.

“I feel like Shemar’s been helping me since Day 1,” Thomas said. “He sees me as a younger version of him. He’s taken me under his wing. They’ve all helped me a ton, teaching me how to watch film, telling me wide receiver tendencies and just how to get in and play.”

While Thomas worked his way into the Demons’ on-field plans, Jones arrived this summer with the expectation to be on the field immediately.

A 6-foot-7, 220-pounder from Miami, Jones cuts an imposing figure and has proven to be equal parts old- and new-school tight end.

Through eight games, Jones has caught 13 passes for 167 yards. His 13 catches equal the number David Fitzwater had in the 2021 season and are three shy of Fitzwater’s mark from the 12-game 2019 season.

Jones is four catches away from turning in the most productive pass-catching season by a Demon tight end since Corey Simmons hauled in 20 passes in 2012.

“He’s a great team player who brings us a lot of flexibility offensively,” Laird said. “We can split him out wide and do things on the outside or we can bring him in and do something as a true tight end. His energy and work ethic is contagious.”

Jones’ long, athletic frame draws attention to him, but he takes as much pride in a tight end’s traditional job.

“I love it,” Jones said of blocking. “People look at my size and underestimate my blocking ability. I’ve shown what I bring to it, and I love to do it.”

One thing remains missing from Jones’ freshman year resume – a touchdown.

Jones produced a 50-yard catch and run at Southern Miss on Sept. 17 and was brought down at the 4-yard line on a screen play against Southeast Missouri State on Oct. 22.

“I want to finish one bad, but I know it’s not on my time, it’s on God’s time,” Jones said. “I’m just being patient, cheering my teammates as they get theirs. Mine’s coming soon.”

Jones induced some of the loudest Turpin Stadium cheers this season on the final play of Northwestern State’s 36-33 win against Nicholls on Oct. 1.

As part of the Demons’ jumper team, Jones skied into the Natchitoches night to pluck away an interception of Kohen Granier’s Hail Mary pass and seal the Demons’ second straight Southland Conference victory.

It was Jones’ first interception since playing youth football, and it led the gregarious, easy-going tight end to try his hand at persuasive speaking.

“That was exciting, but I was just caught up in the fact we won,” Jones said. “The coaches believed in me and my God-given abilities. I told coach Lockett and (defensive coordinator) coach (Weston) Glaser, any time they want me. It doesn’t have to be the last play of the game.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services