Photos: Northwestern vs Southern _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Southern's Jamar Mitchell (29) tackles ball carrier Ed Eagan (7) against Northwestern State, Saturday, Sept. 13, at A.W. Mumford Stadium in Baton Rouge.

Northwestern State won’t have to wait until the meat of its conference schedule to see how tough its players are.

Starting with a first-week matchup with defending Southland Conference co-champ Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 3, the Demons face a grueling opening month.

Northwestern is slated for back-to-back games at Louisiana-Lafayette and Mississippi State — bowl teams that combined for a 19-7 record last season — before squaring off with eight straight league foes.

Demons coach Jay Thomas said opening the season against a conference opponent will “intensify” preseason camp. His players are excited for their shot at the Lions after falling short against them the past two seasons.

“It’s a great way to start. We have a really good rivalry,” senior receiver/return specialist Ed Eagan said. “Playing at home on a Thursday night in front of a big crowd should give us something extra, and this will be one of those games where both teams know the stakes are high.”

Eagan, who set five school records in 2014, leads a team that lost nearly half of its starters, eight of which played defense. But the Demons’ biggest loss was quarterback Zach Adkins, owner of 14 program records.

Northwestern, which the conference’s coaches picked to finish fifth, has six quarterbacks vying to replace Adkins, including former LSU and Vanderbilt player Stephen Rivers and Navy transfer Nick Fabrizio.

Fabrizio is one of four sophomores competing for the job. Thomas wouldn’t reveal whether Fabrizio would spearhead a triple-option package like Navy uses, but he said the quarterback “is talented enough to play other positions.”

Eagan said replacing Adkins will be a challenge, but he and Thomas have faith in the inexperienced contenders.

“There’s a lot of different things we can present to defenses and a lot of weapons there,” Thomas said. “It will be a difficult decision, but in the end, the best man will always win out. It may be game week before we’re ready to name a starter.”

Northwestern, which went 6-6 in 2013 and 2014, returns only three starters on a defensive unit that ranked 78th in the FCS in total defense.

Also, the Demons are adjusting to their fourth defensive coordinator in as many years. But senior defensive end Leroy Armstrong said new defensive coordinator Daryl Daye, who previously coached alongside Thomas twice, brought only a few adjustments to the scheme.

Despite the lack of returning defensive starters, Thomas is confident in the depth and experience on the defensive line.

Armstrong and junior defensive end JeMarcus Marshall, a freshman All-American in 2013 before missing most of 2014 with a back injury, lead 18 defensive linemen into camp.

“We lost six defensive linemen (last season),” Thomas said. “We had to take some young guys who were being redshirted and on the scout team, they found themselves starting against Central Arkansas (in October). It benefits us now because they got a lot of game experience.”