Guys like Cornelius Walker have had an up-close-and-personal look at one of the SWAC’s most fearsome defensive units.
Grambling’s offense faced them every day this spring, and they had a few moments of quantifiable success. It was, Walker told me, something to build on.
“I feel that we played against one of the best defenses we will see,” Walker said. “If we can do positive things against them, then we’re going to be good as a unit.”
Walker, facing other folks, was Grambling’s leading rusher last season, gaining 719 yards. He tied fellow running back Frank Warren and shifty starting quarterback Greg Dillon with four rushing touchdowns a piece in 2008, helping GSU march to a league crown. As a group, they ran for more than 2,000 yards.
Walker and Warren shared run duties throughout the just-completed spring workouts, though it appeared that Warren picked up a few more carries as the sessions wore on. The practices also saw the quick emergence of two new faces in the running back unit, Earnest Eastland and De’Mack Bates — though Bates was eventually slowed by injury.
“We’ve got to find out what they can do,” Broadway said. “First off, De’Mack (a product of Ferriday, La.) has to get healthy. If you want to compete for playing time, you have to stay healthy. We have a lot of good players at a lot of positions — and you can’t play if you don’t practice.”
Eastland, a newcomer out of Houston’s Booker T. Washington High, made a quick impression as a bruising carrier – but runs a bit too straight up, and had trouble with ball control.
Grambling’s offense nevertheless steadily improved throughout the spring, though it was hampered by strict rules against scrambling by Dillon.
Coaches told me that was designed as much to improve Dillon’s pocket-passing presence as it was to protect his health. Last year, Dillon actually had 930 regular-season rushing yards but saw sacks push his net total to 676. (That still made him the SWAC’s No. 4 rusher.)
As a consequence of this practice-session conservatism, however, the players say they’ve only just started to find their groove.
“I feel like we came out and got better as a unit on offense,” Walker said, “and now we know how great we can be if we keep working hard.”
Warren, part of a tandem with Walker that amassed nearly 1,600 rushing yards as freshmen, struggled with injury in 2008. He reemerged this spring as a healthy rising junior with something to prove.
“I feel a little better than I was last year,” Warren told me. “After a sophomore slump, I’m hoping for a better year this time.”
You see that in the way he’s training. Warren — who rushed for a team-high 901 net yards in 2007, just shy of becoming the second Grambling running back to reach 1,000 since 1993 — plans to break out.
“I want to work on my strength and my endurance,” he admits, “for long runs.”
Grambling will need them. The Tigers begin with a season-opening trip Sept. 6 for the program’s second SWAC/MEAC Challenge appearance. There, the Tigers will face South Carolina State in a game to be played in Orlando, Fla. Grambling returns home the following weekend for the ‘09 home opener against Northwestern State before hitting the road to face SWAC East champion Jackson State. The Tigers then travel for their first-ever visit to Stillwater, Okla., to face Oklahoma State.
Meaning the running game, always a big part of Broadway’s ball-control offensive scheme, will be tested early and often.
They know that.
“We’ve got a lot of guys returning,” Warren said, “and toward the end of last season, we had a lot of offensive success. We’re hoping for a fast start.”
A wild card? Kiare Thompson, who has been used a change-of-pace runner, a receiver and a returner. After a stint with Grambling’s baseball team, he returned to the gridiron late in these offseason sessions.
That’s good news, indeed: Only Dillon bested his 965 yards of total yardage in 2008.