Sunday, August 27, 2006

Selected 2003 Grambling preseason stories

A calm beginning
New faces key for GSU success
August 3, 2003

GRAMBLING - The glory of a fourth SWAC championship run for Grambling State begins quietly, on a sun-baked practice field across from the empty Robinson Stadium.

Just before 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, there is no crowd to cheer as Bruce Eugene, the Southwestern Athletic Conference's preseason offensive player of the year, tosses a few short passes. There is only the ceaseless hum of the huge air conditioning units at the nearby athletic facility.

He's steady, workman-like. Turns out, they all are - at least, at first. When the rest of sixth-year coach Doug Williams' team comes trotting out of the locker rooms, there is little joking around.

Despite three years of trophy raisings, despite being picked to return to the championship game at the SWAC's annual media conference this week, there is a sense of tension early on in this training session.

"It's our job to make sure the players don't get complacent," said Williams, who has compiled a 43-14 record since taking over from the legendary Eddie Robinson.

It's easily an hour before the first joke is told. Typically, that comes from a senior. Wide receiver Corey Brownfield sees Williams, who has just returned from the SWAC event in Alabama, and says: "You owe us a day!"

But, for the most part, no one is relaxed. Least of all the coaches, who bark orders until the very end. (Make that the very bitter end: Players, after two hours of practice, were made to run the length of the field twice, then 50 yards twice, then 20 yards twice before being sent to the showers.)

Williams says he'll use that kind of hard work - and a roster bubbling with new talent - to try to ascend to the championship for a fourth straight time. Grambling begins its season against San Jose State, playing in the first NCAA game of the year, on Aug. 23. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

"When we first got here, we didn't have a problem with playing the younger players," Williams said. "And if you look around, some of the young guys are better athletes than some of the older guys. We've got to keep our minds open to that mentality again - because it's been successful. We can say: Well, we've gotten to this place and the veterans got us here. No, the young guys got us here, because we've always played them."

It's safe, however, to use ink when filling in some key roster positions: Senior wide receiver Tramon Douglas joined Eugene on the first-team All-SWAC offense. Cornerback is set with seniors Seneca Lee, a transfer from Louisiana-Monroe, and Octavius Bond.

But fans will see a huge influx of new linebacker talent: Both sophomore Dimitri Carr in the middle and sophomore David Hicks on the weak side drew vigorous praise from Williams on Saturday.

One of the other positions where the team is youngest is at running back. Henry Tolbert enters the season as the starter, but Williams said he remains a situational player.

"It all depends on what you would be asking Tolbert to do," Williams says of the 5-9, 180-pound sophomore. "He's not a guy who is going to pound it. If we are in a situation where we feel like we can run the ball, I think (fellow sophomore) Gideon Leonard is a guy who we would probably turn to."

Leonard is a good bit bigger, at 6-1, 250. Further back on the depth chart is a junior college transfer, Roger Smith. Williams says he may be the best Grambling State player who no one has heard of yet.

"We've got some cracker jacks," he said, also mentioning junior receiver Chris Day. "Those guys could really have a breakout year for us."

The team will practice in full pads for the first time on Tuesday.

"You can't tell much with just shoulder pads. Seven-on-sevens weren't that bad, but everyone is still feeling their way. Even the veterans," Williams said. "But that's part of any season early on. By the middle of next week, we'll be further along. The good part about it is we have a lot of veterans who will help in this situation."

Tiger bites: Freshman receiver Tim Abney out of Neville High drew some sideline praise when, during seven-on-sevens, he made an acrobatic catch from Eugene - fingertipping a 40-yard pass. ... Junior receiver Moses Harris - the star of the spring game, with three TDs - practiced Saturday with his mouth wired shut, after suffering a broken jaw. The wires are scheduled to be removed on Wednesday. ... Freshman quarterback and kicker Brandon Logan had his own cheering section at practice: His father drove up from San Antonio, shooting pictures as Logan worked with Williams.

g g g

GSU feels heat of media blitz
August 10, 2003

Grambling State coach Doug Williams says he hasn't seen anything like this since - well, since back when he was under center: The national media has re-discovered his Tigers.

Three straight Southwestern Conference championships, along with a trio of black national championships, will do that. It's not just that Sports Illustrated has chosen GSU as the No. 1 preseason Division I-AA team in the country. (The Tigers are featured in SI's "2003 College Football Preview" issue for Monday, on newsstands across the country right now.)

There's more:

· Grambling State was also named the No. 1 black college team in the nation by the Sheridan Broadcasting Network. That poll comes from national media and sports information directors from historically black colleges and universities.

· Senior wide reciever Tramon Douglas has been selected to play in the 2004 East-West Shrine Football Classic. · Southwestern Conference coaches and sports information directors picked Grambling State to return to its title game. Junior signal-caller Bruce Eugene was chosen to repeat as SWAC offensive player of the year.

· Both Eugene and Tramon Douglas were named to the Street and Smith's magazine Division I-AA 2003 preseason All-America team. Both were also named to the Sports Network Division and the Athlon Sports I-AA All-America first teams.

As Grambling State takes today off to review film, the team and its coaches must also take stock in what that kind of recognition means for the once-tattered program.

"When I was playing at Grambing, you looked for - and played for - those kind of accolades," said Williams, who helped begin a series of four black national championships won at Grambling from 1977-80.

"Grambling is getting back to the point of being respectable," Williams said. "Grambling is back where people expect them to win."

But Williams has called the outpouring of pre-season honors "a double-edged sword."

He brought a copy of Sports Illustrated out to the practice field during this weekend's training sessions. "I told them about the respect that has been built, not only over the century but in the last few years, as well," Williams said. "The people who came before them worked hard, and won, and left all of this for them. That's a legacy they can continue, if they want to. But it's not going to come easy. It's not going to come cheap."

For instance, his Tigers have a looming home game against the No. 4 team on SI's list this year, McNeese. On the opening night of last season, the Cowboys rode roughshod over Grambling State in Lake Charles. McNeese would eventually finish as runner-up in the national Division I-AA title game.

Williams says his is a different team, one season removed from that 52-20 loss.

"I understood the McNeese game," Williams said. "Only seven of our guys had played together. We were still piecing players together. We were still experimenting."

At that point, Grambling State - which wouldn't lose another game until the season's finale against Southern - hadn't even settled on a quarterback.

"Now, it is a whole new ballgame," Williams said. "There's a different approach: We were more or less hoping last year. This year, we're expecting."

Grambling State returns to the practice field on Monday, with morning and afternoon sessions.

Camp bumps and bruises: The first dozen days of training have left a few of Grambling State's players nicked up - including star receiver Tramon Douglas.

"Tramon bumped his knee," Williams said. "We're taking every precaution (by keeping him out). He's in such good shape, we're not trying to kill him."

Sophomore tailback Henry Tolbert is also nursing a slight hamstring pull. Several others subbed at running back in his absence - including sophomore Michael O'Ree, who had 27 yards on four attempts across eight games last year.

Tigers on the defensive: While Williams has growing confidence in his defensive backs, he says he hasn't seen quite enough of the line to feel secure.

"I don't know yet. I think there is still a question mark there - and that's something that we have got to deal with," Williams said. "Hopefully, they will come through. I know the guys behind them, and the guys behind them will come through. The secondary is a pretty experienced group. Hopefully, everybody is going to look out for each other."

The defensive line returns starters Calvin Arnold as end and Jimmy Zachary at tackle. Grambling lost All-SWAC performers Antwan Lawrence at end and Willie Gray at tackle.

g g g

Line-ing things up right
August 19, 2003

Grambling State has lost 11 starters all together - including top running threat Karrell Charles.

The Tigers were hardest hit, however, on both lines. The offense will see new left and right tackles, and a left guard. The defense must replace a defensive tackle and end.

An increased desire by the Tigers' coaches to establish the run will mean the players on the offensive side will have to grow into their roles quickly.

What they won't have to do is grow physically: None of the offensive lineman is under 300 pounds, with left tackle Johnathan Banks listed at a whopping 360. "They can just lean on somebody," GSU coach Doug Williams said.

Defensively, much is dependant on the play of linemen Lennard Patton and Jimmy Zachary, two juniors who will attempt to replicate the All-SWAC performance of Willie Gray. "I think Patton has to play well, along with Jimmie Zachary on the inside," Williams said.

A young, talented group of linebackers should cover early weaknesses long enough for this group to come along, Williams said.

"What we are worried about right now is getting the offensive line right," said record-breaking receiver Tramon Douglas. "We still have weapons all over the field. Once we get the offensive line playing as one unit, it's going to be hard for teams to beat us."

The main group going into camp also included: junior left guard Aquia Etefia; junior center Lance Wright; junior right guard Darryl Rodgers; and sophomore right tackle Andre Bennett. Coaches are quick to note, however, that the offensive unit's bulk doesn't translate into a sluggish attack off the snap.

"I feel good about the offensive line," Williams said. "In fact, I feel better about them this year than I did last year, even with the young guys. I think having Banks and Bennett in there is going to make us a better football team. You're talking about two guys who are fairly decent athletes for their size."

That athleticism should help key a running attack that has been missing from the team's recent pass-first scheme.

"This is a very young group," said offensive coordinator Melvin Spears. "But this group is a much more athletic group than we had last year. The addition of (freshman) Rueben Mays from (the University of) Tennessee at fullback helps us out a whole lot, too. The thing missing earlier was that we didn't have a real good fullback. Now, we do. You'll see us occasionally with two wide receivers, with a tight end and two backs."

· Coach: Doug Williams (sixth year at GSU, 43-15 record)
· Conference: Southwestern Athletic (Western Division)
· 2002 record: 11-2, 7-1 SWAC
· Plays at: Robinson Stadium
· Returning starters: 14 (Six on offense; five on defense; three on special teams).
· Basic offense: Multiple Pro Set
· Basic defense: Multiple 4-3
· Radio: KJMG-97.3 FM

g g g

Going 1 on 1 with... Junior WR Moses Harris
August 19, 2003

By Nick Deriso
Junior wide receiver Moses Harris was a contributor to Grambling State's third-consecutive SWAC championship, ending up with 20 receptions along with 335 yards. But with a standout performance at this year's spring game, he appears poised to have a breakout season. Now, Harris - who began camp with his mouth wired shut after breaking his jaw while practicing over the summer - is finally able to talk about it:

With such an explosive performance at the Black and Gold game, you convinced everybody that you're this team's No. 2. Is that something you already knew about yourself?
I decided to build up my name this spring. I was focused. I decided to work on a whole lot of little things.

Then, you got injured. Did breaking your jaw hamper your off-season conditioning? Could you have lost a step?
The only thing I lost was weight. I had to eat through a straw. I was very happy to get the wires out of my mouth, and get my weight back up. Within the first two weeks, with the wiring in my mouth, I went from 180 to, like, 162.

Did you have to put food in a blender?
Yes, I'd blend it up. My favorite - it sounds weird to say - was blended-up pizza. Pepperoni, whatever came on a pizza - the crust and all - it just went in there. That was the best meal. At first, I was just eating the same things, then I started to try to blend different things up. I picked back up to 170.

The pizza was an experiment?
I knew I had to eat something! I even tried blending up a hamburger.

How difficult has it been to sit out?
I asked coach almost every day: "Coach, if I put on my stuff, will you let me get into the contact drills?" Nope. So, I conditioned and tried to stay in shape. I ran into a couple of dummies now and then.

g g g

Still 4-boding
GSU maintains talent for run at 4th SWAC title
August 19, 2003

Sixth-year Grambling State coach Doug Williams says he would glance out his office window this summer and notice them: Young teammates working after practice, in the summer's heat, to get back to the championship.

The Tigers (11-2 overall, 7-1 for first place in the Southwestern Athletic Conference) seem to know that they'll have to be in exceptional physical condition to move under the weight of so many expectations.

"Right now, we're on top and everybody wants to knock you off," said senior wide receiver Tramon Douglas - who, despite missing a game in 2002, led the nation in Division I-AA receiving yards. GSU's high-powered offense propelled the Tigers to their third-straight SWAC championship.

"You have to come out here every day with the mentality that you've got to work harder than you did last year," Douglas said. "Last year doesn't count this year. That's what motivates me: It's hard to get on top; it's even harder to stay there."

And how: No one has ever won the SWAC championship four times in a row.

Offensive coordinator Melvin Spears knows he can't do it without rethinking everything - even that celebrated offense.

"We wanted to supplement Tramon Douglas," Spears said. "We wanted to make sure that everyone will have to cover the whole field. They can't just come in and bracket him."

The bulk of Grambling State's offensive misdirection this year will come from wide receiver Moses Harris - who, despite having just 20 catches and one touchdown in 2002, streaked up the depth chart with an impressive off-season.

The unit is rounded out by returning senior Calvin Colquitt and several new additions, including junior transfer Chris Day and newcomer Bryan Carroll.

"If you double-team me, somebody else is going to have a great day," said Douglas, already honored with an invited to the East-West Shrine Game for his lofty numbers in 2002. "It doesn't matter to me, as long as we win."

"With Moses playing the way he has been playing, with Colquitt, Day and the freshman Carroll - that makes us very potent," Spears said. "We're also adding a few other things, like the running game. But the guy that makes it go is at the quarterback position."

That would be Bruce Eugene. Thrust into the leadership position as a sophomore last spring, Eugene was later demoted after the first game, then came back to break every significant Grambling passing record - most of which were set by his head coach back in the 1970s.

"He's a long way from where he was last year," Williams said. "He was still feeling his way. He had all of the abilities to throw the football. But now, he's not only making throws - but making good decisions."

Eugene has looked much more comfortable in the leadership role this off-season, directing the offense with polish and fire.

"It's partly getting older, but also playing the position," said Eugene, a Walter Payton Award finalist. "As quarterback, you've got to be a leader not only on the field, but off the field. I credit both Coach Williams and Coach Spears for getting me ready."

Spears doesn't take those off-the-field concerns lightly. "You know, Eugene is an honor student now," Spears said. "When he came to school, he was little lazy. But now he's applying himself in the classroom - and applying himself here on the field."

Eugene's quickly developing maturity, and his ability to avoid injury, will key the 2003 season for Grambling. "That's pretty much the key for any team - for their starting quarterback not to get injured," Eugene said. "We won't come in and surprise anybody this year. This year, every one knows we have talent. We'll have to show up and prove it."

While the defensive unit lost six starters from last year, coordinator Mike Roach has reloaded with immediate first-teamers like sophomore linebacker Dimitri Carr and senior cornerback Seneca Lee, a Louisiana-Monroe transfer.

"I knew, this being my last year, that I couldn't play around," said Lee - mirroring this team's aggressive approach to the offseason.

They'll need it: Even with a spotty SWAC schedule - Alabama State enters the year in turmoil over recruiting violations, for instance - the Tigers won't coast into the championship game.

The upcoming slate features two nationally known, non-conference programs - San Jose State, a rare Division I opponent, this Saturday; and McNeese State, the Division I-AA runner-up in 2002. "Last year, McNeese beat us pretty good," Lee said of the Tigers' 52-20 season-opening loss at Lake Charles. "But things will be different this time."

Too, as is tradition, the regular season ends with the always well-coached Southern University at the Bayou Classic. The Jaguars accounted for Grambling's only other 2002 loss.

"The respect that people have given us this year - whether that's write-ups in the newspaper, awards, polls, what have you - people are expecting a lot from us," Williams said. "Our players have to understand that it's up to them to keep that interest. Coach Roach told them: `This is hollowed ground.' So many great guys have come through here. Now, they have a chance to leave a stamp."

Count Tramon Douglas among those ready to get started. "All the young guys want to get themselves a ring," he said. "They ask me about in the locker room all the time. I'd like to go out as a winner, too. Four straight years as a champion? You can't beat that."

Coach speak
Q Once they get in sync, how dangerous will this offensive line be?
A With those big guys, all they'll have to do is be able to come off the ball. Just get any movement at all. You can't see behind them!
- GSU head coach Doug Williams

No comments: