NATCHITOCHES -- At the top of the list of those deserving credit for Northwestern State’s 21-man football recruiting class unveiled Wednesday: the Demons’ current players.
Second-year head coach Brad Laird, and recruiting coordinator Jake Olsen, stressed that point to an enthused National Signing Day luncheon crowd in the Friedman Student Union Ballroom.
The Demons announced 10 signees on the first-ever early signing day in mid-December, then included four mid-year transfers and seven newly-added recruits Wednesday morning.
The class, which was whittled down from over 2,000 prospects considered since Laird took the helm of the program after the 2017 season, includes eight Louisiana products and 11 from Texas. In the final stages, when recruits made official campus visits, often with their parents, the current Demons stepped forward, along with the fabric of the university and the town, as decisive influences, said Laird.
“As a parent, you want your son to be surrounded by good people,” he said, “and that’s what we have at Northwestern State and the city of Natchitoches. On our official (on-campus) visits, I tell every recruit, and every parent, ‘I want you to ask our players about Coach Laird, about your position coach, about Northwestern State University. They’re going to tell you the truth.’
“Our guys are genuine. They love this place and that really comes through to the parents and to the young men we bring in on visits,” said Laird. “No doubt that was a compelling factor for us to have such a good recruiting class.”
NSU added 12 offensive players, eight defenders and Shreveport-Byrd High kicker Scotty Roblow. He was among six signees from within roughly an hour’s drive of Natchitoches, along with North DeSoto athlete Aubrey Scott, Waskom running back/receiver TK Hamilton, Shreveport native and former Calvary Baptist tight end David Fitzwater, a Tulsa transfer; and two Tyler, Texas, standouts, receiver Robbie Williams III from Chapel Hill High School and defensive tackle Ja’Bralen Yarber of John Tyler High.
From the Monroe area came defensive lineman JaQuez Jackson of Ouachita High and West Monroe High defensive end/linebacker Chandler Moncrief.
“That’s important as we continue to develop the 318 (area code) relationship, which describes the commitment we have to bring talented players from nearby to our football program,” said Laird. “We reach out near and far, but we do place a priority on giving those (area) prospects the chance to enjoy playing their college games in Turpin Stadium with their families and friends in the stands.”
Offensive coordinator Brad Smiley and his staff were ecstatic at the additions to their side of the ball, especially with receivers and tight ends who will be relied upon right away.
Already on campus is Purdue transfer Benaiah Franklin, who led the Boilermakers in receiving with 117 yards in their 2018 spring game. Chapel Hill’s Williams, Waskom’s Hamilton, and perhaps the versatile Scott (600 rushing, 500 passing and 250 kick return yards for the Griffins last fall) will replentish the pass catching corps.
Said Laird: “We lost four receivers who accounted for 170 catches, 1,700 yards and 23 touchdowns and we believe we’ve signed players who will help fill those shoes immediately. We graduated two tight ends and brought in two transfers (Fitzwater and Navarro Junior College product Corey Smallwood) who are different, giving us a lot of options within the framework of what we want to do.”
Adding game-breaking talent was a priority offensively. Running back Erik Hart was rated among Central Texas’s top 25 prospects after 2,117 rushing yards, a 6.9 average per carry, and 26 touchdowns for Waco-China Springs High last fall.
“We didn’t lose a back, but we had to have somebody at that position who could change a game on one play, and we got three of those guys,” said Laird. “Aubrey Scott from North DeSoto can do a lot of things and right across the border in Waskom was T.K. Hamilton, an extremely explosive player. Erik Hart ran for five touchdowns in a game, twice, and scored six in a playoff game. He’s another who runs to space and outruns defenders.”
The Purple Swarm defense was bolstered by five signees up front: Jackson, Moncrief, Yarber, Welsh’s Johnathan Daigle and former four-star recruit Darius Whitfield, a South Alabama transfer who had an LSU offer among other high-profile opportunities (signing with South Carolina) after being rated among the country’s top 30 defensive line prospects in 2015 out of St. Paul’s Episcopal in Mobile, Alabama.
“Up front defensively we lost three guys and wanted to bring in an older guy who could contribute right away (Whitfield) and some good high school talent,” said Laird. “We’ve added a junior college linebacker (Kilgore College’s Adrion Robertson) who can compete for a significant role and Jared Pedraza, who is extremely talented (a three-star signee from Franklin, Texas).”
While the Demons return three quarterbacks, led by returning starter Shelton Eppler (2,639 passing yards, 26 touchdowns in 2018), Laird was delighted to sign UTSA transfer Bryce Rivers – who threw for 268 yards against North Texas in the 2018 season-ender, his only start with the Roadrunners – and All-State Class A Outstanding Player Zachary Clement of two-time Division IV state champion Lafayette Christian Academy. The Knights’ standout produced 37 touchdowns while running for 637 yards and throwing for 2,055 yards on 65 percent aim last season.
“I’m going to be biased because I played quarterback, and today we got two guys we really like. We saw them in a lot of different situations,” said Laird. “We won’t choose a quarterback off film. I want to see camps, I want to see them in practice, I want to see them in competition, and I want coach Smiley and (quarterbacks) coach (Anthony) Scelfo to also have those points of evaluation.
“It’s a longer process. What both those guys have done excited us, and who they are confirmed our determination to bring them into our program,” he said.