NOTE: Second in a series of stories on state college football teams. Today: Northwestern State.
NATCHITOCHES – There's no question that Northwestern State has the maturity ... has the quarterback ... has some game-changing transfers ... and has the defensive stud to build around.
The question remains, though. Is that enough for the Demons to take that proverbial next step?
"We have to find a way to get over that hump," said NSU coach Bradley Dale Peveto, who has taken the Demons from 0-11 to back-to-back 5-6 seasons in his three years. "We've been close. The last two years we've had a chance to strike in the last two or three games and we haven't done it."
The Demons were 3-1 in Southland Conference play and 5-3 overall with three games to play in 2011, and proceeded to lose those three by a combined 121-37 score. Admittedly, two of the three came to the league's NCAA qualifiers – eventual national runner-up Sam Houston State and a Central Arkansas team that also reached the NCAA second round.
But the opponent didn't matter, according to Peveto.
"We have to learn to finish as a football team," he said, "and we've worked hard to try to find ways to coach that."
Having a veteran team usually helps in those circumstances, and NSU has that. Fifty-one out of 66 lettermen are back from last year's 5-6 unit, including nine offensive starters, and 20 seniors on the season-opening depth chart.
One of those seniors is at the quarterback slot, but he's in a very different position than the one he held 12 months ago. Brad Henderson was a little-known backup to returning starter Paul Harris, fresh out of East Mississippi Junior College, and saw little action in the first half of the 2011 opener as the Demons fell behind Delta State 21-0.
Henderson, though, started the second half and completed his first 13 passes -- a school-record 13 – while guiding NSU to 24 unanswered points and an eventual 24-23 win – its second-biggest rally since moving to Division I in 1977. NSU scored on four of their first five possessions Henderson played (they reached the Delta State 30 on the other one before a fumble).
"I knew I was going to play some, but not get that many reps," said Henderson, who went on to set school records for season passing percentage (61.6) and completions (178) and the fifth-highest season pass yardage total (1853) in school history. "You have to prepare yourself, be ready for any situation. Those guys that were out there had confidence in me."
"What a great job he did," Peveto said. "It's not easy when you're still learning an offense."
The Louisiana Football Tour – Stop #2
Stop #1 -- McNeese State
He's got a grasp of it now, and he'll have a lot of help on the offensive side of the ball this year. Along with the nine returning starters, the Demons have several transfers on the offensive front along with Blayne Cole and Tchissakid Player as returning tackles and all-SLC selection Larry Calcote at guard.
The most important transfer, though, may be diminutive running back Rob Walker, a transfer from UL Lafayette's New Orleans Bowl champions who rushed for 2,041 yards and 27 scores as a senior at Mamou. He came out of spring drills as the top tailback ahead of veterans Sidney Riley and Rumeall Morris – a good thing, since 2011 leading rusher D. J. Palmer will sit out this season.
"We have to be able to run the ball better," Peveto said, "and I felt like we got a lot better there in the spring. If you run the football better, cut down on turnovers and eliminate foolish penalties, your odds are a lot better."
Phillip Harvey, who figures to become NSU's career kick return leader this year, and the consistent Louis Hollier head up a veteran receiver corps that also improved transfer-wise with Oklahoma transfer Sheldon McClain joining the squad this year.
The Demon defense has been built for two years around middle linebacker Derek Rose, and why not? The senior earned All-America honors as a sophomore and junior and could become the second player in NSU history to be a three-time All-America pick. He's also on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list, which goes to the nation's best FCS defender, after posting 220 tackles over the last two seasons.
"He just has a knack for making game-changing plays," Peveto said, "especially down in the red zone."
He's not the only Demon to watch defensively. Safety Jamaal White, already tabbed as a draft prospect, is listed as one of the 10 FCS defensive backs to watch by The Sports Network.
All isn't golden on the defensive side, though. Rose will be flanked by first-time starters at the other linebacker slots, and even though nose tackle Lesley Deamer is one of the Southland's most improved players, the defensive front still has question marks.
NSU will be solid on special teams. Along with Harvey and his 23.7 career kick return average, the Demons return John Shaughnessy, the Southland's top kicker and holder of a streak of 12 straight made field goals entering the season.
"We're close," Peveto said. "What's going to help us is the same team and staff that's gotten close is the same team we'll put on the field this year. We can be physical, but we're also doing a lot of smart things that maybe we didn't do in the past."
Demons at a Glance
Head Coach: Bradley Dale Peveto (SMU '86), 10-23 entering fourth year
Lettermen Returning: 51 (26 offense, 23 defense, 2 specialists)
Starters Returning: 18 (9 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)
2011 Record: 5-6 (3-4 in Southland Conference for fifth place)
Northwestern State 2012 Schedule
Sept. 1 at Texas Tech, TBA
Sept. 8 ARK.-MONTICELLO, 6 p.m.
Sept. 15 at Nevada, 6:05 p.m.
Sept. 22 MISS. VALLEY STATE, 6 p.m.
Sept. 29 *at McNeese State, 7 p.m.
Oct. 6 *LAMAR, 6 p.m.
Oct. 13 *at Southeastern Louisiana, 3 p.m.
Oct. 27 *NICHOLLS STATE, 6 p.m.
Nov. 3 *at Central Arkansas, 7 p.m.
Nov. 10 *SAM HOUSTON STATE, 6 p.m.
Nov. 17 *at Stephen F. Austin, 6 p.m.
*Southland Conference games
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