NATCHITOCHES – Since his first meeting last November with the Northwestern State football team as head coach, Brad Laird has preached championship values.
Those resounded around NSU’s Fall Sports Media Day luncheon from the “Champion Leaders,” nine upperclassmen chosen by the coaching staff to set a tone for the 2018 season.
“You could feel the culture change as soon as Coach Laird walked in the door,” said receiver Gavin Landry. “He set a tone. When 96 of us reported in July, we developed team chemistry to a level we’ve never seen before.”
Landry, an undersized (5-6, 177) walk-on from White Castle-St. John’s, is in his third year with the Demons. Laird said may be the hardest-working player on the roster. He’s shown toughness in practice this week while limping between snaps, working through a groin pull.
“Our coaches preach finding a way,” he said. “I want to try to get the job done for my brothers out there, so if I can go, I’m going to give it all I’ve got.”
That approach is the pathway to championship success, said newcomer Blake Stephenson, who came to NSU in January from the highly-successful Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College program, along with new offensive coordinator Brad Smiley, quarterback Shelton Eppler and offensive tackle Khalil Corbett-Canada.
“The biggest thing is everybody’s buying in. They want to win, and it’s more than talking about it,” said Stephenson, who was very impressive in spring practice. “At Trinity Valley that’s what we preached, and that’s what we did.”
Fifth-year senior receiver Bryson Bourque, the offensive MVP of the 29th Annual Joe Delaney Bowl ending spring practice, echoed the sentiments of the veteran Demons in the Stroud Room speaking at the Media Day luncheon.
“This is the most excited I’ve ever been,” said the former walk-on from New Iberia, who appreciates being in the receivers meeting room with Power 5 transfers Jazz Ferguson (LSU) and Quan Shorts (Texas Tech, along with productive returning seniors Jaylen Watson and Marquisian Chapman (35 receptions for each last season).
“I played with a group my freshman year that put two receivers in the NFL and another in the CFL. I’m more excited about this year’s group,” said Bourque. “We’ve got threes (third-teamers) who can get the job done in the Southland Conference.”
The catalyst for an explosive attack is a solid offensive line, a role embraced by junior center Dustin Burns (6-4, 301) and teammates as they enter their first season coached by former Texas A&M player, and Trinity Valley assistant, J Pond.
“The offensive line is a puzzle, and we’re going to find the best pieces to have that cohesiveness needed to succeed. Coach Pond always talks about mental acuity, mental toughness, and we’re working real hard to get where we need to be.
“I’ve seen so much improvement from the guys in the room with me since January,” he said.
The trend is so positive that senior guard Chris Zirkle has reconsidered sitting out the season to recover from shoulder surgery last winter. Zirkle (6-2, 287) is now planning to take advantage of a new NCAA rule which allows players to compete in four games and still take a redshirt season, allowing him to play a full senior year in 2019.
“It was a hard decision to have the surgery, sit out and not play this year with my brothers, but with this new rule, I’m glad I can come back,” said the 2017 second-team All-Southland selection. “But I’m not planning to come back during the season, in the last four games against Southland teams. I’m planning to come back for the playoffs.”