Updated: August 8, 2003, 4:19 PM ET

NATCHITOCHES, La. -- Northwestern State has cracked the Division I-AA Top 10 at some point during each of the past three seasons. To get there again this year the Demons will have to hope for a fast-jelling defense and a quick-study quarterback.

Scott Stoker, who steered Northwestern as high as No. 3 in the rankings last year in a 9-4 season, has only three returning starters on defense: Jerry Goldsmith at cornerback, safety Neil Ponstein and Quentene Newhouse at tackle.

Stoker's biggest concern is the secondary. If injuries begin to add up, a collection of freshmen will need to perform.

"I'm anxious to see how these guys are going to fit into what we do," Stoker said. "I hate to play so many true freshmen, but we're going to have to."

The Demons have eight returning starters on offense. The big question is who will direct that seasoned group?

Redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis missed most of the spring workouts with a bruised Achilles' tendon. Lewis practiced with the No. 1 offense throughout last season, but Stoker sees a four-man race unfolding in the final weeks of practice.

"We've limited some of the offense and made it a bit simpler, especially for early in the year," he said. "You'd like to have a quarterback in early spring, but I didn't have that luxury. So we'll pick two of them and get them ready for play."

Northwestern does return a powerful running duo with Derrick Johnese and Shelton Sampson. They combined for nearly 2,300 all-purpose yards and 23 touchdowns.

"At least the kids understand what we want to do offensively," Stoker said. "The big deal will be if we can find a quarterback that can move the chains.

"At tailback, there's no question. Everybody knows those two guys. We need to find a quarterback the kids feel comfortable with and can get it done."

Northwestern's schedule is as aggressive as ever. It doesn't have a paycheck game the likes of last year's date at Georgia, but the Demons visit two in-state I-As, Tulane on Sept. 6 and Louisiana-Monroe two weeks later. Non-conference I-AA matchups against national total offense leader Jackson State and Northern Iowa ought to help the young Demon defense grow up quickly before the Southland Conference race starts in mid-October.

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