NATCHITOCHES – With 18 seasons of collegiate coaching experience, 11 at the Division I FCS level, Northwestern State's first-year offensive line coach Allen Rudolph says he's never had it this good.
"When we're healthy, we've got plenty of depth. I feel real good about being nine deep now, with the 10th and 11th on the bubble. At this level, I've never had it this good depth-wise, with guys who can line up and win games for us," he said Wednesday as the Demons paused between two full pads workouts in Turpin Stadium.
As usual with the biggest players on the team, there's a hitch – it's getting all of his best players on the field at once for an extended time. Veterans Blayne Cole and Josh Cunningham have missed time with heat-related issues, while senior guard Isaac Puapuaga is recovering from a concussion.
Cole (tackle) and Puagauga (guard) are the projected starters on the right side of the line. Cunningham is a swingman who can play either guard slot.
"I don't know how it will turn out and I'm a little uneasy about that, but overall we're on track," said Rudolph, offensive line coach at Southland Conference rival Southeastern Louisiana for the past five years. "It's been great for (Baylor transfer sophomore) Luke Burleson (6-6, 305) and (true freshman) Pace Murphy (6-6, 276), getting a lot of meaningful reps they might not otherwise have gotten this early in camp, so they're further along than expected at this point and that will help us sooner or later."
Overall, Rudolph likes his group's status through 15 practices, with the second major preseason scrimmage set Saturday at 6 in Turpin Stadium bringing an end to camp as classes begin Monday.
"We're where we are supposed to be at this point. We're not ready to play a game on Aug. 15, but we need to be ready Sept. 1," he said. "I see the progression on track. We need to clean up some things, and we need to get the starting rotation set as best we can so those guys can work together on a consistent basis."
Cole (6-4, 277) and Pace are manning the right tackle post, with last year's starting left tackle, Tchissakid Player (6-6, 294), topping the corps at guard along with Puapuaga (6-1, 323) and Cunningham (6-2, 269). Two rising juniors, Caleb Stanfield (6-2, 289) and Warren Jones (6-1, 300), anchor the line at center, with senior all-star candidate Larry Calcote (6-4, 284) and Jeremy Raine (6-4, 315) at left tackle. Burleson could break into the rotation at tackle while Arkansas Baptist transfer freshman Gary Artiste (6-1, 284) is emerging as a third center candidate.
"We'll need to cross train some guys to handle multiple jobs in case we need to juggle assignments to get the best five out there," said Rudolph, who was offensive coordinator at SLU for the past two seasons and also spent two years at Samford in the same role along with coaching the offensive linemen.
Murphy has made a very fast impact after signing with the Demons last February out of Strake Jesuit College Prep in Houston.
"I didn't know where Pace would factor in, but he's extremely athletic, extremely bright and has picked up our offense, our terminology, our communication very fast. He's been a real bright spot," said Rudolph, assessing his top newcomers. "Luke Burleson's doing extremely well. Warren Jones was unable to participate in spring, but he's very athletic and is doing a tremendous job. He will be in the mix and really help us.
"Caleb Stanfield is really doing a good job for us at center. He and Warren have a great battle going on and make that position a very good one for us. Caleb is tough as a boot," said Rudolph.
The 18-man offensive line contingent in camp is primarily seniors, juniors and true freshmen. Redshirt freshmen Xavier Jefferson and Jonathan Lewis are developing well and progressing toward emerging in the playing rotation as sophomores, if not sooner, said Rudolph.
"It's a good group. They work hard and they've done what we've asked," he said. "We've got work to do to get where we need to be on Sept. 1 in Lubbock, but we're on track."
The Demons kick off the season at Texas Tech, then host Arkansas-Monticello in Turpin Stadium on Sept. 8.