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Photo: Northwestern State head coach Brad Laird leads his sixth Demon team into the 2023 season opener against UL Lafayette at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services

LAFAYETTE – The foreword to the 2023 Northwestern State football season has been written.

At 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Cajun Field, the Demons will begin writing the first of the at least 11 remaining chapters in their collective story when they face state rival UL Lafayette in the season opener for both teams.

“The fall camp and the preseason games, those are in there, but this will be the first big chapter of the book,” said head coach Brad Laird, who begins his sixth season at the helm of his alma mater.

While the Demons face an in-state opponent in a full-season opener for the first time since 2017 when they opened the season at Louisiana Tech, they are dealing with folding in a large group of newcomers for the second straight season.

NSU has 53 newcomers on its 2023 roster, nearly even with the 62 returners from the 2022 squad that won its first four Southland Conference games for the first time since 1988. The Demons spent most of the spring and summer honing team chemistry ahead of fall camp – something that began at the player level.

“When I came in last year, I felt like I was part of the team right away, and I wanted to do the same for the new guys this year,” said running back Kolbe Burrell, who joined the Demons after transferring from Buffalo ahead of the 2022 season. “If we weren’t bonded and didn’t come as close together and accept the guys who came out her, we wouldn’t be in the spot we’re in. Coming together as one, as a team, made us a player-led team, which is our goal.”

A season ago, the Demons enjoyed a number of “first since” moments.

Those were fine for Laird and his fifth NSU squad, but as his sixth season begins, the Demon coach’s focus is on the Ragin’ Cajuns.

“We talked about that early because I wanted the newcomers to feel the energy that the returners felt during that stretch,” Laird said. “They had that feeling they hadn’t had in a while. You saw that. We put it to rest because the 2023 season is one of its own. We look forward to writing this chapter, but you can’t write it all in one day.

“We know Nov. 18 will get here, and we want that game to mean a lot, but you have to take care of your business now.”

Among the newcomers expected to make an impact in 2023 is quarterback Tyler Vander Waal, who enters Saturday’s season opener with 26 starts spread over time at Wyoming and Idaho State.

Vander Waal will have plenty of weapons returning around him, including 2022 Southland Conference Newcomer of the Year Zach Patterson, who caught 83 passes in his debut season, a total that ranks second in NSU single-season history.

Patterson and sophomore tight end Travon Jones were first-team preseason All-Southland Conference selections along with junior safety Kevin Davis Jr., NSU’s lone first-team preseason all-conference defensive selection.

Much like the offense, there are plenty of new faces on the Demons’ Purple Swarm defense.

Included in them are a pair of Campbell transfers who played under current NSU defensive coordinator Weston Glaser while with the Camels.

Linebacker Justice Galloway-Velazquez and safety Peyton Woulard joined the Demons this summer, adding to that list of newcomers who are expected to make their Demon debuts Saturday.

“We’re very eager, and we’re very antsy,” Galloway-Velazquez said. “We know this team is better than the ones in the past. We’ve built the chemistry, and we’re ready to put it to the test and see where we’re lacking.”

Saturday’s matchup with the Ragin’ Cajuns is the first of consecutive FBS opponents the Demons will face in Weeks 1 and 2.

While the Demons will face “bigger” schools in each of the first two weeks, they understand what can happen and what is to be gained from the experience.

“When you face very tough competition in the beginning of the season, it guides you throughout the rest of the year,” Burrell said. “You face the toughest competition in the beginning, and you get better and learn lessons. If we go in and win, it’s another lesson for us that we’ll take along with us.”