#35 Northwestern State FCS Football 2016 Preview

Northwestern State Demons
Overall Rank: #35
#4 Southland
Northwestern State got off to a rough start in 2015. They lost their first five games, including three conference games to Southeastern Louisiana, Central Arkansas and Incarnate Word. After that, the Demons started to look much better. They won four of their last six contests with the two losses coming on the road to McNeese State and Sam Houston State. Coach Jay Thomas will hope to build off of that late season success heading into the 2016 campaign.
2015 Record: 4-7, 4-5
2015 Postseason: None
Coach: Jay Thomas (16-19 at Northwestern State, 43-54 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Daryl Daye
Defensive Coordinator: Ben Norton
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: De’Mard Llorens, RB, 820 yards
Passing: J.D. Almond, QB, 528 yards
Receiving: Shakeir Ryan, WR, 327 yards
Tackles: Darius Poullard, S, 75
Sacks: Darius Poullard, S, 3.0; Isaiah Wheeler, DT, 3.0
Interceptions: Adam Jones, S, 1; Darius Poullard, S, 1; Peyton Guidry, LB, 1
Other Key Returnees: RB Chris Jones, WR Tuff McClain, OL Terrance Boyd, LB Shawn Stephens
Key Losses: RB Daniel Taylor, QB Stephen Rivers, WR Ed Eagan, OL Pace Murphy, LB Jacob Merriman, S Chase Collins, DE Leroy Armstrong, K Chris Moore
With quarterback Stephen Rivers gone, the Northwestern State offense has a bit of rebuilding to do. J.D. Almond threw 69 passes last season for 528 yards and three touchdowns, while Joel Blumenthal threw just 29 passes on the year. Those two will battle it out with Louisiana transfer Brooks Haack for the starting job. Rivers is not irreplaceable and Coach Thomas has three solid options, so the passing game should be in fine shape. It helps that wide receiver Shakeir Ryan is back. He will step in as the main receiver after catching 27 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns last season. The rushing game is in good shape with De’Mard Llorens and Chris Jones. Llorens rushed for 820 yards and 11 scores, while Jones added 424 yards with four trips to the end zone. If the passing game does struggle under the new quarterback for a while, Northwestern State should be able to make up for it with their ground game.
The Demons defense ranked at or near the bottom of the Southland in way too many categories. It was way too easy to run against Northwestern State and the result was the team giving up nearly 40 points per game. The front seven has a lot of work to do. Tackle Isaiah Wheeler tallied 3.0 sacks last year and JeMarcus Marshall has the potential to get back to his freshman form when he tallied 8.5 sacks. Peyton Guidry and Shawn Stephens highlight the returning talent at linebacker. The secondary returns safety Darius Poullard, who recorded 75 tackles and 3.0 sacks last season, and Adam Jones. The unit should get a boost from the newcomers, most notably junior college transfer Austin Balthazar and freshman Hayden Bourgeois. But even if the secondary is better, the defense will not improve without more production from the front seven.
The Bottom Line:
Northwestern State has the potential to get off to a much better start in 2016. After a trip to Baylor, the Demons play Incarnate Word, Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana. This is a Northwestern State team that needs to beat squads like Incarnate Word at home. The potential problem with the schedule is that many of the presumed winnable games are on the road. Getting McNeese State and Sam Houston State at home is nice, but those games could result in losses regardless. That means Northwestern State will need to win some of those road games, or pull off a home upset or two, if they want to win six or seven games.
Projected Postseason: None
2015 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 193.6 (29th in nation, 6th in conference)
Passing Offense: 202.3 (61, 4)
Total Offense: 395.9 (49, 6)
Scoring Offense: 27.9 (55, 6)
Rushing Defense: 275.0 (122, 9)
Pass Defense: 210.2 (56, 3)
Total Defense: 485.2 (119, 9)
Scoring Defense: 39.5 (116, 8)
Turnover Margin: 0.00 (57, 5)
Sacks: 1.45 (102, 8)
Sacks Allowed: 2.36 (79, 7)