Thomas wants his Northwestern State defense to eventually look a lot like Saban’s Alabama stoppers, based in a 3-4 alignment and relying upon speed and talented linebackers to get the job done.
And the new Demons’ head coach isn’t giving any thought to the value of preseason polls. Last week at the Southeastern Conference Media Days, Saban pointed out that in 17 of the past 21 years, polls failed to accurately pick the conference champion. Wednesday at the Southland Football Media Kickoff, Thomas gave barely a passing glance to polls that slotted the Demons sixth in the eight-team Southland Conference.
“I know what our own expectations are, and I understand how others see us wouldn’t line up with what we plan to do this fall,” said Thomas. “It’s a pecking order on paper only. In a month, we’ll start to play it out, and in two months, we’ll be kicking off the conference season. That’s when it matters. Right now, I like what’s happened and what’s happening with our team.”
Thomas proudly points to having up to 85 Demons in Natchitoches for most if not all summer long, working out together in offseason conditioning and player-led drills. He was already encouraged by the progress his first Northwestern team made in 15 spring practices, particularly in reducing mental errors and penalties, and in the steady progress of the offensive and defensive lines.
“It all starts up front and we feel very good about the guys we have there on both sides of the ball,” said Thomas. “That’s why we brought these two down here to talk with the media.”
Senior offensive tackle Blayne Cole and senior defensive tackle Lesley Deamer were steadfast in their belief that the new coaching staff, schematic changes across the board and the prowess of the big guys on the lines are among reasons to expect a winning season in the 12-game slate for NSU this season.
“Great things are all I expect to see. I think that’s a given,” said Cole. “We’ve had every offensive lineman in summer training camp. I think we’re the best (position) group (on the team), and the most ‘put together’ offensive line we’ve had yet. We have a new coach (assistant head coach/offensive line coach Ben Norton) and he’s doing some great things with us. I agree with everything he says and one is that we definitely have a chance to be successful.”
Norton has helped three other Southland teams – Texas State, Sam Houston State and McNeese State – win conference titles and advance to the FCS playoffs, including quarterfinal runs in 2001 and 2004 (Sam Houston) and Texas State (2008).
“He knows what it takes to win and win big in our league,” said Thomas. “We’ve coached against each other for many years and now finally he’s on my sideline. That’s one reason I feel really good about this coaching staff. The biggest thing is that so many of us have previous relationships and have worked together, which has really sped up the process because the coaches don’t have to learn how the other guys think and teach. We’re all on the same page from day one and that has given our players the chance to learn a new system quickly.”
Thomas begins his second Southland head coaching gig after six years (2004-09) at Nicholls State, where he led the Colonels to the 2005 league crown, national rankings in three seasons and three of the four best records in the past 16 years in that program. His trademark was a run-based triple option offense, leading to several media asking if the Demons would use the same system. Not hardly, with Thomas hiring offensive coordinator Robby Brown, whose scheme has roots in the Tony Franklin system launched at Troy, then unleashed in the past two seasons at Louisiana Tech.
Thomas chuckled at the questions, didn’t discount the chance that an option play or two might get run from time to time, and enjoyed Cole’s description of the Demons’ new offense.
“Everybody asks ‘are you going to be spread and just throw the ball around’ and we’re not. In the spring we pounded the rock just as much as passing, if not more,” said Cole. “I think if we can develop that running game, the passing game will be there.”
The Demons have used a four-man defensive front since the 1970s, and that look won’t completely disappear under defensive coordinator Chris Boone, but Deamer likes the expanded duties he forsees in the new scheme.
“I think it’s great. The adjustment is pretty cool because we get to move around a lot more and attack more,” he said. “I may play some defensive end here or there, or play nose. I like it a lot.”
SLC Preseason Polls
1. Sam Houston State (6) - 48
2. Central Arkansas (1) – 42
3. McNeese State – 37
4. Stephen F. Austin (1) – 32
5. Southeastern Louisiana – 26
6. Northwestern State – 17
7. Lamar – 14
8. Nicholls – 8
Sports Information Directors’ Poll
1. Sam Houston State (6) – 48
2. Central Arkansas (2) – 44
3. McNeese State – 33
4. Southeastern Louisiana – 30
5. Stephen F. Austin – 27
T-6. Nicholls – 18
T-6. Northwestern State – 18
8. Lamar - 15
First place votes are in parentheses.