NATCHITOCHES - Opening preseason football camp is always exciting, but this one is special for the Northwestern State program as new head coach Jay Thomas and his staff welcome 95 players who will report Saturday afternoon and begin practice Monday.
"You always look forward to camp, but this year, it's like Christmas. You get to open packages, so to speak, when you see the new guys coming into camp for the first time," said Thomas. "It can't get here fast enough. It's a fun time."
Thomas, hired last December, begins his seventh season as a head coach, his first since 2009, and his third year at NSU. He was defensive line coach for the Demons in 2010-11.
His first spring practice in charge at Northwestern went "very well" as players adjusted to a completely new coaching staff, save for cornerbacks coach and former standout Demon receiver De'Von Lockett, and new schemes on offense, defense and special teams. This weekend, Thomas will welcome back 58 returning lettermen, evenly split between offense and defense, along with eight starters on both sides.
The first two days of camp will be filled with meetings, equipment pickup, physical exams and conditioning checks before practice begins at 3:30 Monday. Well over two dozen newcomers will join the veterans as workouts begin.
"We want to bring them back slowly, get them acclimated to playing football again. Obviously they've all been training and working out hard summer, but not in a structured football environment, doing football drills," said Thomas. "You've got to get the rhythm, the timing, all the terminology, and get used to where all the stations are in practice. You're looking to establish the fundamentals and the routine of practice."
Although there will be plenty of competition in the coming weeks leading to the Aug. 29 season opener at Missouri State, Thomas wishes he had more players on hand than the NCAA-mandated limit of 95 involved before classes begin on campus in the last week of August. Finding the right blend of veterans expected to play right away, and newcomers who should or could contribute immediately, to fit into that 95-man limit is a challenge for every Division I head football coach.
"It's unbelievably tough. We have so many guys that deserve to be in the 95, but very difficult calls had to be made that in the case of the guys not in camp yet, don't reflect how we feel about their future. They're not off the team and they still mean a ton to us," he said. "They are just as committed to our program and their futures as anybody who will report Saturday.
"The way it falls with school starting and the first game on the same week, the restriction of having only 95 of our guys in camp until that week put us under pressure," he said. "We have to make our priority preparing the team for that game, so we're taking a step back with some guys who might not be ready to play week one, but could sure earn some playing time sooner than later. We've made some tough calls, for sure."
Saturday beginning at noon, players will report to the NSU Athletic Fieldhouse to pick up equipment, get checked by team medical staff and go through orientation. Daily workouts are at 3:30 beginning Monday.