As game slows, Pedraza’s production trends upward

Like many college students, it took Jared Pedraza some time to develop the right study habits.

The one difference between Pedraza and some of his classmates is his lack of interest in studying early in his college career was relegated to practice and game film not classwork.

“When I first got here, I didn’t study film, if I’m being honest, because I really didn’t understand what I was watching,” said Pedraza, a fifth-year junior who shares Northwestern State’s team lead with 42 tackles through five games.

Five years later, Pedraza is a walking film reel who has gained the trust of his teammates and coaching staff to be the eyes of the Demon defense.

“Whenever our defense comes off the field, he’s always the first one we ask, ‘What are you seeing? What’s going on up front?’” said second-year defensive coordinator Weston Glaser, who served as Pedraza’s position coach during the 2022 season. “He’s effective communicating what he sees. We lean on him because of his football IQ.”

That IQ, sharpened by a now-relentless appetite for football-related information, has helped the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Pedraza rack up double-figure tackles in three straight games entering Saturday’s 3 p.m. contest at Nicholls.

Pedraza and fellow linebacker Jaeden Ward are tied for fifth in the Southland Conference and 44th nationally in tackles per game at 8.4. It is fitting that the two are side by side in a national ranking given their close friendship.

The two have become so close on the field Glaser said he is convinced they have developed a bit of mental telepathy on the field.

“It’s a competition, but it’s a friendly competition,” Pedraza said. “That’s my dog. In 2021, he was my backup. The season after, we played opposite positions. This year, going into the spring, we pushed each other. Everything was a competition. We competed in the weight room, who could get the best GPS measurements, all that.”

The two starting linebackers in NSU’s 4-2-5 scheme each hit double figures in tackles against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 30 and in last week’s Southland Conference opener at Lamar.

They have teamed up with one another on more than one occasion to come up with a key play for the Demon defense this season.

“Last game, there was a play where there was a puller and (Ward) spilled the puller to kick the running back out to me,” Pedraza said. “I made the play, and he was screaming, ‘We’re the best duo in the conference.’ I love that guy. There’s no one else I want to play next to.”

It is a safe bet Pedraza did not need to see the tape to remember that play.

Pedraza’s off-the-field growth began in 2021 when he first became a starter after Ja’Quay Pough suffered an injury. Pedraza filled that starting role with aplomb, capping the season with a four-sack performance at McNeese as Northwestern State defeated the Cowboys for its first win in Lake Charles since 1988.

That was the final game Pedraza played under defensive coordinator Mike Lucas before Glaser arrived in the offseason preceding the 2022 campaign.

The change in scheme – aided by a rising comfort level and a thirst for football information – helped Pedraza set a career high with 70 tackles a season ago. In fact, in each of his first four seasons at NSU – Pedraza redshirted after four games in 2019 – Pedraza’s tackle total has climbed from the year before.

“You’ve got to understand with J.P., he played both sides of the ball in high school and had a lot of success as a running back,” sixth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “He played more of a hybrid role on defense. He wasn’t a true linebacker. Now, he’s five years into that position, and you’ve seen him grow there and become better each year.”

The empirical data behind Pedraza’s year-by-year improvement is there in black and white.

The key, however, is stored in Pedraza’s rabid film study – one that sees him asking teammate Brayden Staggs for a password to watch the Demons’ offensive practice film as well.

“Last year, the game really slowed down,” Pedraza said. “I started to understand scheme, to get tell-tale signs of what was going to happen pre-play. This year, the game has slowed down even more.

“I understand the game. I still have a lot left to learn, but I feel good out there. I trust the scheme. I trust the coaches. I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. I know I can be better, but I like how I’ve developed throughout the years.”