NATCHITOCHES – Northwestern State’s Brad Laird is a record-setting quarterback turned defensive coordinator. He coaches the same position he used to try to fool while throwing for 6,037 yards for NSU from 1991-95.
While Laird oversees the entire Demon defense beginning his third stint (2003-05, 2008-11) as coordinator, he also is the safeties coach, tutoring a dozen players in three positions, two which form the last line of defense.
After NSU began its second week of preseason camp Monday morning with a 2:15-long practice in shorts and helmets, Laird exhorted the defensive unit to strive for winning not just games, but championships. What he saw overall Monday wasn’t up to his standard, after a sluggish start to the 8 a.m. workout.
As he stepped inside following practice, however, he conceded that as far as the safeties group is concerned, there’s been noteworthy progress since the start of spring practice last March.
“It’s night and day. A lot’s on their shoulders. They’ve come to work day in, day out, mentally and physically,” he said. “Those guys have come a long way since last spring.”
The cornerstone is 6-0, 188-pound senior Austin Balthazor, honorable mention All-Southland Conference last year in his Demon debut with 74 tackles, second on the team.
“Austin is the vocal one on the back end, as far as the safeties and corners, and we need safeties to be vocal. There are a lot of checks, a lot of changes, and they have to communicate the calls and alignments to the other DBs,” said Laird.
While Balthazor was productive last season, the Collins, Miss., native, an East Central Community College standout, wants 2017 to be a quantum leap for him and his teammates. His goal is simple.
“Get better every day. Take no play off,” he said. “I know what happened last year, and we can’t do the same things we did then. I’m taking it day by day to try to be better as a position group and a team.
“My role hasn’t changed much. I was kind of vocal (last season) as a starter, but now I’m a senior, there’s the leadership role. I know young guys are looking up and I have to carry myself a certain way, keep everybody focused and getting better every day,” said Balthazor.
The only other senior among the 12 safeties is former LSU squad member Lionel Williams, who transferred to NSU during preseason camp last year. An LSU graduate, the 6-0, 199-pounder earned Southland Commissioner’s Academic Honor Roll status while pursuing another degree in criminal justice, and he’s made a position change since Laird took over the defense.
Back in the spring, we were looking at a couple different spots for him. We started with him at Buck linebacker, and we saw an opportunity at our Star position (safety) for him, and made the move at the beginning of spring,” said Laird. “Since the change, he’s made a lot of progress.”
Williams, a native of Chesterfield, Va., whose mother and brother played college basketball, likes the change.
“I’m in the box a little more, I’ve lost a little weight, and I’m moving pretty well right now. I like to hit. Coming off the edge, using my speed and getting into the backfield quickly, that’s a lot like the outside Buck position I was playing.
“I’ve got to be physical and know the game more, so I can get the younger guys behind me, Tevyn Johnson (5-10, 194) and Malik Sonnier (6-0, 177), ready so we have that depth,” he said.
Sophomores Nick Forde (5-11, 195) and Ryan Reed (6-0, 193) each started some last year, but did not go through spring due to injuries.
“They did learn the system in the spring, but I didn’t have the opportunity to evaluate them,” said Laird. “I’ve seen them in six practices and I’ve been proud watching the progress they’ve made.”
Sophomore Ian Edward has moved from cornerback into contention for a bigger role at safety. Sonnier, also a sophomore, emerged as a challenger in spring ball.
Newcomer Hayden Bourgeois (5-11, 190), the Class 3A Defensive MVP for unbeaten state champion Notre Dame-Crowley in 2015, is in his first few days of practicing with the Demons and Laird is excited about his upside.
“Hayden is learning the system. He’s made very good progress in a short time,” said Laird.
Hinds Community College transfer Kevin Ratliff (6-0, 197) is also new to NSU, and Laird said “he’s constantly improving, day in and day out.”
With four weeks left before NSU takes the field against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 2, Laird still feels a strong sense of urgency with his position group.
“We’ll continue to install each and every day. The key for that position is to understanding what we’ve installed while we move forward with new installations. We’ve got to continue to progress on the field, being consistent,” he said. “They show so many signs of being great, but being consistent day in and day out is what I like to see.”
The Demons will pull on full pads Tuesday morning at 8, hoping projected rainy weather doesn’t result in lightning delays. They are moving toward the first major scrimmage of preseason Saturday morning, also at 8.
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