Saturday, December 22, 2007

Selected 2005 Grambling preseason stories

Two veterans to compete for top offensive position
By Nick Deriso

GRAMBLING - All eyes were on competing quarterbacks Bruce Eugene and Brandon Landers throughout Grambling State's spring sessions.

They will be again in the fall. Coach Melvin Spears said he won't make a final determination on who will lead GSU's offense until after the arrival of heralded quarterback prospect Larry Kerlegan.

So these sessions, though upbeat, didn't reveal much about the offensive scheme for 2005.

"We'll evaluate the films, see how well we played. We'll look at Kerlegan when he gets here. But there will be no big changes in what we do," said Spears, who was 6-5 as interim last year after finishing with three wins in the final four games.

Eugene, a former two-time Walter Payton Award finalist, was just one of several injured players from last year who rejoined the offense - including senior receiver Moses Harris.

"Practices were a lot more up tempo," said Landers, who shot to conference freshman of the year honors when Eugene went down in Week 1 of last season. "We were moving from station to station in a more timely manner."

Talented newcomers from the 2004 season, like freshmen receiver Clyde Edwards and lineman Tavarus Cockrell, also returned as savvy veterans.

"Injuries last year meant our kids got an opportunity to play at a young age," said Spears. "We had 15 freshmen playing last year - and that's been the difference this spring. They had participated and could work on the little things now. They got better."

Eugene's heralded return, though marred by an obvious weight gain, was capped by a stellar performance at GSU's Black and Gold game. He was 19-of-34 for 275 yards, including three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Landers, on the other hand, was just 4-of-13 for 100 yards.

"I felt like it was a good spring practice, that there was good competition," said Landers, the former Carroll standout. "The spring game was tough for me, but you have games like that. We will go back and evaluate the film then go from there."

Despite that game's disparity, coaches insist that the position hasn't been filled yet.

"Bruce Eugene brings great leadership," said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White. "His experience tell him to change the play, if need be. Brandon has different skills. When he first came in, straight out of high school, that was big adjustment - just getting used to the speed of the college game. But he's been working, and he's gotten stronger."

RB: Senior Ab Kuuan's MVP performance in the Bayou Classic - along with a sturdy spring game - has solidified his position as the offense's every-down rusher.

"He's become a complete back," said Spears. "He does all the little things."

Kuuan, oozing confidence, finished the Black and Gold scrimmage with 11 carries for 151 yards and a touchdown.

"He's starting to see the hole better," said Landers. "He's beginning to get a great feel for where he's supposed to be when he gets the ball. He's built a lot of confidence."

A bevy of talented change-of-pace runners back up Kuuan - including Michael Rainey, a newcomer who impressed coaches throughout the sessions with his toughness. Ruben Mayes, a punishing runner and blocker, returns at fullback.

OL: The loss of starting center Lance Wright, a team leader, and right guard Darryl Rodgers might have meant a steeper learning curve. But Wright had been out since the first play of the Jackson State game last October, when he went down with a lower-leg injury.

Cockrell got some valuable experience as a substitute, as did senior Chris Wiggins.

"They have had a chance to gel," Spears of the offensive line. "Wiggins is the most athletic guy out there. He can play all five spots, including center."

Left tackle Jonathan Banks, left guard Charles Wilson and right tackle Andre Bennett return. They will be bolstered by mammoth Mississippi State transfer Donovan Davis.

"We will have a couple of different combinations, with new guys who are coming in here," Spears confirmed.

TE: GSU hasn't had a reliable performer here since the departure of all-conference tight end Gershone Jessie in 2003. Coaches aren't that concerned, though, since their scheme doesn't rely on the tight end to make plays. Jerome Spears made two big catches in the spring game, but it appears Matt Feeheley will get most of the snaps.

WR: The return of Harris, who broke his ankle in the week before 2004's season opener, balances the unit across from the burner Edwards.

"Moses' conditioning is not where it needs to be," said White, "but he's coming on in a hurry. We didn't push him too much this spring. We want to make sure he's ready for fall."

Harris had four catches for 51 yards, including a score, in the Black and Gold scrimmage. Edwards added a 39-yard reception.

Henry Tolbert will play the slot. The senior caught three passes for 49 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

GSU's thunderous four- and five-wide sets will feature Reginald Jackson, Kovarus Hills and Paul Hardiman.

"Hills is pushing all of those guys," said Spears. "He's certainly going to be in that rotation. Paul Hardiman is asserting himself. All he's got to do is become a little more physical."

Depth chart
QB: Brandon Landers*, Bruce Eugene
TB: Ab Kuuan*, Michael Rainey
FB: Ruben Mayes*, Terrion Rodgers
WR: Clyde Edwards*, Moses Harris
SLOT: Henry Tolbert*, Tim Abney
TE: Matt Feeheley, Jerome Spears
LT: Jonathan Banks*, Derrek Governor
LG: Charles Wilson*, Jamar Dorsey
C: Tavarus Cockrell, Chris Wiggins
RG: Chris Wiggins, Tommy Dural
RT: Andre Bennett*, Doug Smith
* - returning starter

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Replacing defensive line, secondary brings battles
By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Battles for starting jobs on the defensive line and secondary took a backseat to the ongoing quarterback derby this off-season at Grambling State.

Perhaps they shouldn't have.

"We've got a dogfight right now at defense end, with (sophomore Jason) Banks and (converted senior tight end Matt) Duhe," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "There's a great competition there. But the good thing is they are all interchangeable. We can allow all of them to play."

Coaches also converted another offensive player, wide receiver Bakari Guice, in an effort to replace Lewis Carter at the corner. The junior was lost to a knee injury before spring sessions had begun.

Guice showed promise, as did Texas Tech transfer Ivory McCann, but the team jumped at an opportunity to sign Oregon transfer Marques Binns - who coaches say will push them all.

All-conference defensive tackle Lennard Patton, who sat out last season with academic problems, brought needed experience to a unit that lost three of its four starters - including Houston Texans draftee Kenneth Pettway.

Patton, who is already getting postseason game invites, lived up to the hype: He had seven solo tackles in the spring game, including five for a loss of 21 yards. Patton added four sacks for a loss of 49 yards and a safety, along with a recovered fumble.

The other spring starters were tackle Kevin Wiggins, Banks and Jena product Jason Hatcher. But then Matt came over from tight end.

"The big, big surprise is Matt Duhe," said Spears. "That light has finally come on."

LB: This unit was decimated by graduation, with the loss of Pettway, Marcus Yanez and John Petty. But no one played better down the stretch run in 2004 than returning middle linebacker Dimitri Carr. The Farmerville product finished as GSU's leading tackler.

David Hicks and Joshua Bester have emerged at the top of the depth chart on the strong and weak side, respectively.

But two other performers had impressive showings at the spring scrimmage: Tim Wilson had nine tackles, including five solo. Cedric Harris, a sophomore from Monroe's Neville High, had seven tackles, with three for a loss of 12 yards.

Linebackers coach Andre Robinson said Harris was this unit's most improved player during the spring.

"He's gotten bigger, after having a really good off season," said Robinson, himself a former consensus All-American linebacker at Grambling. "I'm pretty pleased with all of the guys."

Richwood product Michael Gilbert - who, like Bester, is a converted strong safety - has been working on both the strong and weak sides as a backup.

Out last season with academic problems, Hicks has also been playing behind Carr, but Wilson is Carr's main backup.

DB: Greg Fassitt, a smart junior from New Orleans, secured a starting position on one side of the defense, while the other remains competitive.

"Greg Fassitt can just flat-out play," said Spears. "He's got a 3.3 GPA, and does everything the right way. A model guy."

Guice, a product of Wossman in Monroe, showed steady improvement throughout the camp and will play nickel situations.

"Bakari has great speed," said Spears. "He just has to gain some confidence in playing a new position - and come to the weight room this summer."

While the school continued to sort through transfer problems for McCann, coaches continued tinkering.

Sterlington's DeMichael Dizer, along with talented newcomers Tyrone King Jr. and Deshon Pennie, were competitive. But GSU will also bring in Binns, the Oregon transfer.

"I think Ivory is one of the most promising guys out here," said Spears. "But we don't know now about his situation with Texas Tech."

Binns left with 61 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery in 26 games during the past three seasons at Oregon. His best season was a breakout freshman year in 2002 when he had 30 tackles after a starter went down.

Zaire Wilborn and Jermaine Mills - who Spears calls "Mr. Consistency" - are the starting safeties.

Specialists: The team returns a stellar return tandem in Landry Carter and Keantwon Gray. These two combined to help lead GSU to the top of Division I-AA in returns for several weeks last season. Carter, then a freshman, was the No. 12 kick returner in the nation.

But the kicking and punting game is less settled. GSU lost Brian Morgan, the conference's top kicker last year, to graduation. Punter Tim Manuel returns, but he sometimes struggled through his freshman season - finishing ranked No. 9 in the 10-team conference.

Several promising kicking recruits are expected to arrive in the fall.

Depth chart
DE: Jason Hatcher*, Antonio Hughes
DT: Kevin Wiggins, William Nance
DT: Lennard Patton, Johnathan Favors
DE: Matt Duhe, Jason Banks
WLB: Joshua Bester, Michael Gilbert
MLB: Dimitri Carr*, Tim Wilson
SLB: David Hicks, Cedric Harris
CB: Bakari Guice, Deshon Pennie
SS: Zaire Wilborn, Bryan Langford
FS: Jermaine Mills*, Antonio Rainey
CB: Greg Fassitt*, DeMichael Dizer
* - returning starter

GSU buzz list
Signal-calling smoke signals: GSU coach Melvin Spears said no decision had been made in the quarterback battle, but senior Bruce Eugene was taking the majority of the snaps with the first team by the end of spring - and had the far better spring game.

Secondary consideration: Sterlington product DeMichael Dizer could work his way into multiple-set cornerback situations, and might even see game-time action elsewhere in the secondary. "He had probably the best camp of them all," said Spears. "He can play safety or corner, and with great speed. We saw a lot from him."

Hills climbs up: Clinton sophomore Kovarus Hills secured a role in the wide receiver rotation. "He got better every day," said Spears. "He's a Sammy White-type player, a game-time player. You can't really tell how fast he is."

Duhe gets defensive: Matt Duhe flourished at defensive end this spring. "He is playing," Spears said, "at another level." Like starter Jason Hatcher of Jena, Duhe is a converted tight end.
- Nick Deriso,

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Guessing GSU's success
Preseason rankings quite varied for Tigers
July 1, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - Grambling State is either one of the Top 10 Division I-AA programs in the nation - or has tumbled all the way down to No. 36, depending on the preseason predication.

GSU coach Melvin Spears sees both rankings as grist for the inspirational mill.

"I don't think it necessarily matters," Spears said. "It can be a pride thing, but you can't let either one leave you stranded in one place. Either way, it can be used to motivate our troops."

A middle ground might be found in's consolidated Top 25 preseason rankings, where Grambling - which finished 6-5 overall, but third in the SWAC's West division with a 3-4 mark - was a respectable No. 19. That was the highest ranking for a Southwestern Athletic Conference school.

GSU fared best in Street and Smith's, where writer Lut Williams had the Tigers at No. 9 in I-AA.

"That's a whole lot of respect built up over the years with Coach (Eddie Robinson) and Doug (Williams)," Spears said. "We've just got to play like a No. 9 team."

Grambling returns its top rusher in Ab Kuuan, last year's Bayou Classic most valuable player, as well as top receiver Clyde Edwards on offense. Former two-time Walter Payton Award finalist Bruce Eugene and Brandon Landers, last year's conference freshman of the year, are battling for the quarterback spot.

Street and Smith's preview said that returning experience makes Grambling the team to beat in the West this year, facing Alabama State from the East in the title game. It did not select a conference champion.

"The loss of Eugene in Melvin Spears' first game as head coach knocked conference favorite Grambling State for a loop," said Williams, editor of the online Black College Sports Page. "With Eugene back after being granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA, the Tigers will come in as West division favorites."

Still, GSU could only manage No. 24 in Lindy's Poll. Hampton was the top-ranked historically black college in that poll, debuting at No. 13.

"We just want to go out and prove them wrong," said Eugene, a senior who missed 2004 with a knee injury. "We know when the dust clears, we will be in it - regardless of preseason ranking."

The worst preseason ranking for GSU comes courtesy of the poll, which had Grambling at No. 36 - one spot behind Southern. The top-ranked black school in the AGS poll was again Hampton, at No. 22.

"A lot of folks are putting us down in the pack, because we've got some holes to fill - in particular defensively," said Spears, who lost five starters - though returning linemen Jason Hatcher and Jason Banks combined for 10 sacks. "We need to find out if we can play consistent football."

Grambling's overall preseason rankings were damaged by finishing 94 out of 120 schools in's final Gridiron Power Index for 2004.

That score is weighted down by the sometimes-weak SWAC's strength of schedule, something the GPI includes as a main statistical base. For instance, the Tigers only cracked the Top 20 in that rating system once (at No. 20, in 2001) during their 2000-02 three-peat conference title run under Doug Williams.

Still, the uneven nature of the talent in their home conference, some writers said, could easily spark another title run for the Tigers - though the instate Bayou Classic rivalry game always looms as a deal breaker.

"After opening with Alcorn State followed by Alabama A&M, the G-Men should take a 2-0 record into a payday game against Washington State in Seattle," said Steve Brown, a radio host who writes for "Afterwards, expect them to roll off six consecutive victories until they face rival Southern - where they could pick up their only conference loss of the season. Unfortunately, it could be such a loss that could thwart their championship hopes in a tight Western Division race."

Athlon, Phil Steele's and Sporting News, a trio of the best-known football prognosticators, didn't mention Grambling because they do not produce preseason Division I-AA previews.

GSU's star power
A trio of Grambling State athletes have been recognized in the positional preview series by The Sports Network's Matt Dougherty.

Senior quarterback Bruce Eugene, on the comeback from a season-ending knee injury in 2004, was named the No. 7 returning quarterback in Division I-AA.

"On numbers alone, Eugene could earn a spot in the top two or three or even No. 1," writes Dougherty. "Eugene finished in the top three of the Walter Payton Award voting in 2002 and 2003, and leads all returning quarterbacks with 84 career touchdowns and 9,122 yards passing."

Meanwhile, Dougherty named junior Ruben Mayes as the top fullback and senior Jonathan Banks as the No. 2 offensive tackle in Division I-AA.

"The mammoth Banks returns at left tackle for a Tigers line that boasts three players over 350 pounds," writes Dougherty.

GSU also swept Street and Smith's offensive and defensive players to watch in the Southwestern Athletic Conference for 2005. They are Eugene and defensive lineman Lennard Patton.