Entering his sixth Southland Conference Football Media Day, Brad Laird wanted to look back before focusing on what is in front of his Northwestern State squad.
And the former record-setting Demon quarterback wanted to single out what he considers his team’s most important offseason addition – and it is not one of the more than nearly 30 new scholarship players who have joined the NSU roster since January.
“Our biggest recruit that we’ve had coming into this football season is not a football player,” Laird said during the Southland’s virtual interview segment Monday afternoon. “We’ve got five new (assistant) coaches who have come in and done a great job with these players, but the most important one has been coach Jason Smelser, our director of strength and conditioning. He has changed the mind-set of this football team since January. Not just getting bigger, stronger and faster, but the work you have to put in, doing the right thing. He’s brought a different mind-set to this football team.”
Smelser’s addition came shortly after the Demons completed their best Southland Conference season in nearly two decades, going 4-2 and finishing a game behind co-champions Southeastern and UIW.
The Demons outplayed their 2022 predictions, a fifth-place projection that matches where the league’s coaches chose NSU to finish in 2023 as well.
Smelser’s presence has been visible for each and every Demon regardless of whether they are new to Natchitoches or an established part of the NSU roster.
“Even when we’re out there conditioning, everything has to be taken seriously,” said quarterback Tyler Vander Waal, who transferred from Idaho State ahead of the spring semester. “You’ve got to have that game intensity doing everything. We talked about Jason Smelser, and he talks about it to. You’ve got to have that intensity and laser-like focus through everything.”
Vander Waal has embodied that focus since arriving in Natchitoches in January, earning the respect of his teammates on both sides of the ball.
“He’s a dog,” senior linebacker Jaeden Ward said. “He thinks like I do. He expects the best out of his guys. If someone runs a lazy route, he gets on them. I have the utmost respect for him.”
That intensity is something the Demons are focusing on keeping throughout the entirety of their 11-game season, which begins Sept. 2 at UL Lafayette.
“We’ve got to stay focused,” Ward said. “We started conference exactly the way we wanted to, but we fell short in the end. Now, it’s about consistently finishing. With the new players and new coaches we have in, we have the pieces. It’s on us now.”
While Vander Waal will make his NSU debut this season, Ward is set for his third year in Purple and White and second in defensive coordinator Weston Glaser’s system. Blending newcomers like Vander Waal with returners like Ward will be paramount for the Demons entering the 2023 season.
The past two months – when most of the NSU roster was in Natchitoches – has started that process. Vander Waal said, to a man, the Demons accepted him when he arrived in January.
Laird said that feeling has permeated the roster top to bottom.
“I’ve said this, we brought in 27 guys not counting incoming freshmen,” Laird said. “This thing works both ways. As those guys are coming in – Tyler being one of them in January – they didn’t come here thinking they were the guy. Our existing players did not look at them as an enemy or coming to take their spot. It had to work both ways. To me, that’s been the most gratifying thing.
“You’re always looking for that team chemistry. What’s the 2023 season going to be about? You’ve seen the buy-in from both groups – the new guys and the existing players. It’s been fun to watch that mesh. Now in college football, you see it more and more. That has to go beyond the coaches. When I talk about being a player-led team, that’s what you’re seeing.”