Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Remembering: The 2006 season

Grambling's coaching search follows problem-plagued year
December 23, 2006

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — The new coach at Grambling State inherits a talented, but badly underachieving, team.

While he'll have to move forward without several senior leaders, there remains a stable foundation upon which to build. As long as he can figure out how to win the close ones.

He'll also have to rebuild one of the league's worst defenses. And decide what to do with a messy quarterback situation.

Grambling (3-8 overall, 3-6 in the SWAC West) fell six of eight times this year by a touchdown or less. The only definitive losses were to Division I-A foe Houston (by 20) and then to Alabama State (by 19).

"We struggled a lot, just couldn't finish," said senior cornerback Bakari Guice, a Wossman High product. "We'd keep falling short."

In the end, a total of 25 points stood between GSU and a 9-2 record. Instead, Grambling — just a year after posting an undefeated league mark on the way to the Southwestern Athletic Conference title — was out of the divisional race by October's end. That season-turning loss to Texas Southern began a dramatic slide to end the year.

Grambling lost its homecoming, its traditional rivalry game against Southern and then its coach, as Melvin Spears was fired after three years.

Spears, a product of SWAC foe Alcorn State, had also worked for six seasons under former coach Doug Williams as an offensive coordinator — helping Grambling to three other titles in 2000-02.

None of that apparently mattered in the wake of Grambling's first losing record since 1998.

"It was a long year, a tough one," said interim coach Sammy White, a former wingback at Grambling who was hired by Williams to coach receivers before that '98 campaign. "You don't see many like this around here."

In fact, Grambling lost eight times for just the third time in 60 years.

The season was punctuated by this team's struggles to adjust to the absence of record-smashing quarterback Bruce Eugene. Spears was 11-1 with Eugene under center, but 9-13 without him.

The staff mixed and matched the talents of redshirt sophomores Brandon Landers and Larry Kerlegan — with mixed results.

After the season's first two games, both with Landers under center, ended in overtime losses, Kerlegan was inserted against the then-undefeated Houston, an eventual bowl team.

It seemed an almost impossible task, in particular when recalling his last performance against a I-A opponent. Kerlegan attempted just one pass in 2005 against Washington State, and it was picked off.

On this night, however, Kerlegan sparkled — finishing with 248 yards in the air and 88 yards on the ground in a game that was tighter than its 20-point margin suggests.

Even standing at 0-3, Grambling's future seemed a bit brighter because of that performance.

Yet Kerlegan came out sluggish and got benched a week later, beginning a merry-go-round at the position that left both quarterbacks at a disadvantage. Each struggled to find his rhythm, and the coaches seemed unable to settle on a definitive starter.

"It was hard, day-to-day," Kerlegan said. "You never knew who would start. I just kept coming back week after week, hoping to get the chance to compete."

There remains some question, too, as to whether a remade offensive staff — one that by then included Eugene himself in play-call decision making — was doing enough to tailor its attack to the talent currently on the field.

Landers put up big numbers, winning multiple league player of the week honors, but wasn't able to finish off key games against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (the eventual Western Division representative in the 2006 title match), Texas Southern, Southern and Alcorn State — each of whom won by an average of only five points.

Kerlegan seemed to be operating on a stripped-down, run-first playbook, and performed like a quarterback worried about getting yanked for his first mistake. More often than not, he was.

All along, however, Kerlegan remained steadfast. His is a talent the new coach likely can count on.

"I'll be back," Kerlegan said. "With all the great legacy here at Grambling, I want to be a part of that."

Fullback Ruben Mayes and running back Ab Kuuan, working with a new position coach, both had disappointing senior years behind a shuffled offensive line.

Kuuan finished as Grambling's leading rusher for the fourth straight year, but saw his production fall to its lowest since he was a freshman under Williams.

Returning junior receiver Clyde Edwards quietly put together another stellar season, finishing first in the conference for catches per game and second in yards. But seniors Henry Tolbert and Tim Abney both missed chunks of time to injury.

Tolbert — a year after leading the SWAC in touchdowns, total yards, receptions and yards-per-catch — would ultimately fall just short of several career marks at Grambling.

"It goes so fast," Tolbert said. "All I expected, and all I wanted, was to set those records. To come up short is unbelievable. But I think my place at Grambling is set."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, infighting among the similarly remade defensive staff trickled down into the locker room. As players questioned the calls, some began to execute with less heart. Others appeared to quit all together.

The new coach will have to radically rebuild most of this unit, from front to back. Linebackers Dimitri Carr and David Hicks are graduating, as are defensive backs Guice, DeMichael Dizer (a Sterlington product) and Greg Fassitt — who suffered from neck and then hamstring problems all year.

There were flashes of intensity from younger defenders like linebacker John Carter, cornerback Kenneth Anio and lineman William Nance.

But in the end, this team — which began with three losses and ended with four — similarly sagged on both sides of the ball.

An emotional mid-season win against Jackson State, then the conference's hottest team, simply came too late.

By the time Grambling hit the field for that home opener, on Oct. 21, it had already played six games in four states — including back-to-back bus trips to Alabama, first for the season-opening MEAC-SWAC Challenge against Hampton at Birmingham and then right back to Huntsville to face eventual SWAC champion Alabama A&M.

When Grambling was held scoreless after halftime in its own homecoming against Alabama State, it marked just the third time GSU had been shut out in the second half in five seasons.

Spears' subsequent four-point loss to Southern was his first since taking over for Williams. But it underscored for a national audience on NBC what plagued this squad all year.

Cameras caught glimpses of staff arguments, laid bare questionable playcalling (GSU actually punted on third down at one point) and illustrated how a team that had averaged eight wins a season over the last 10 managed to reverse that figure in 2006.

Needing a yard to get a first down and extend the game, Grambling was stopped behind the line of scrimmage. Southern ran out the clock to preserve yet another loss for GSU by less than a touchdown.

Grambling chose to move its popular home date against Alcorn State to the end of the slate in order to play Hampton, setting up a deflating final image on the year.

The GSU community would said goodbye to its seniors — many of them are the last to play a full season under Williams — in a meaningless game before an announced crowd of just 2,383. That's roughly half of what a NAIA provisional team drew last year.

One of the few fans there held up a sign, as the team left the field, that read: "Send Spears back to Alcorn."