Demons will have an unexpected quarterback competition this spring

MOVING ON:  Sophomore quarterback Zach Clement had a breakthrough season for Northwestern State in his fourth year at NSU, but will play elsewhere next season. (Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

NATCHITOCHES – The narrative in college sports changes quickly. It has this week for the Northwestern State football program.

Although the latest twist seems negative, Demons’ coach Brad Laird refuses to see his starting quarterback’s entrance into the transfer portal in a bad light.

Last Tuesday, fourth-year sophomore Zach Clement was named second-team All-Southland Conference. It was a glorious honor for a guy who rode the pine in the first two games and played in a mop-up role in the third one. But with over 3,700 career passing yards, a 4-4 overall record as a starter in a program that hasn’t seen .500 since 2014, and impressive 2022 production (2,498 passing yards, another 303 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns with19 of those passing) – leading an offense that ranked second in passing and third in total offense in the conference – Clement had cred, and the respect of league coaches.

As it turns out, he also had some wanderlust. Tuesday, Clement announced on social media that he had entered the transfer portal. Within hours, he already had offers from 2022 opponent Eastern Illinois and conference rival McNeese.

Clement, who did not respond to an interview request Wednesday, thanked Laird and said he has “many things to be grateful for during my time at NSU – great teammates, great memories and getting to not only play, but grow in my knowledge of the game. I will forever be grateful.”

Laird is, too. And very understanding.

“Zach made a well-thought-out decision, definitely not a spur of the moment one,” Laird said. “He tore his ACL in his junior year of high school, and although he was able to come back and play his senior year, he didn’t feel like he had the opportunity to experience the full recruitment process. Now that he’s been able to showcase what he can do, he’s at a point where he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity the transfer portal provides, and see what’s out there. He’s a very competitive person, and that competitiveness is drawing him to enter the portal.”

Clement, a product of perennial small school power Lafayette Christian Academy, has a fiancé back home and they’re anticipating marriage before next season. After four years in Natchitoches, he’s ready for a change in scenery.

“We had a very lengthy discussion, and a very positive discussion. I think the world of him,” said Laird. “We’ve had a great relationship, still do, and I can’t wait to see what continues to happen in his career.

“Am I disappointed it won’t be at Northwestern State? Dadgum right I am, but, I’m going to support him like I would support my son. He’s been nothing but great to me, to Northwestern and his teammates, and we should all support him moving forward.”

Portal declarations begin on the Monday after the end of the regular season. In the case of FBS programs, it starts next Monday after conference championship weekend.

As of Wednesday, nearly 50 FCS quarterbacks of all levels of accomplishment were in the portal, and they had plenty of company.

“I looked (Tuesday), and there were 350-400 FCS players who had just entered the portal – not total, just new ones over the weekend. Come Monday, there’ll be a lot more (with FBS players),” said Laird. “It’s the landscape of college sports. As much as I hate losing Zach Clement, we’re going to utilize the portal to bring guys in for this program. We made a lot of positive moves this past season, and we’re expecting to be better in 2023.”

NSU is recruiting junior college players along with scanning the portal but is also actively recruiting high school seniors.

“You don’t want to be overloaded with juniors and seniors compared to freshmen and sophomores. I’ve always wanted a balanced roster,” said Laird. “We’re still going to recruit high school kids to replace our fifth- and sixth-year seniors who are graduated and have used their eligibility. That will not change.”

But when spring ball begins in March, Laird will have an unforeseen quarterback competition to manage.

“Change is constant. It’s how you handle it,” he said. “We plan to improve our football team with every player we add to the roster and we’re excited about the foundation we established this fall.”

Contact Doug at sbjdoug@gmail.com