Back in the Day: Spring 2008 reports

A NEW MINDSET, 4/3/08:
There’s a loose confidence about Grambling’s spring football practices that was missing last season.

Back then, the players were still trying to become acclimated to incoming coach Rod Broadway, a reshuffled staff and a new scheme. Other than some small tweaks involving inidividual drills, these sessions have remained largely unchanged.

“It’s a great feeling; it takes a weight off of you,” said rising senior GSU quarterback Brandon Landers. “You already know what the coaches expect from you. That stability feels good.”

Spoken like somebody already on his third coach. Landers was signed by Doug Williams then played for three seasons with Melvin Spears.

That burgeoning confidence has allowed Landers, and others, to settle in quickly — and helped them focus in on how to get better, rather than on what to do.

Grambling coach Rod Broadway, in between spring sessions, has quietly begun a successful tour to meet with several of the program’s most important alumni bases.

Local legend Ellis “The Dean” Ellis has been his envoy in visits that have included Houston and, last week, in Monroe — where John Belton, a governor-appointed commission member of the Eddie Robinson Museum project, also stopped by.

“We hope to go around to as many of the alumni chapters as possible, giving Coach Broadway a chance to talk about the football season, to promote ticket sales and give an update on the museum,” said Ellis, who has become a spokesman for the efforts to establish that tribute to his old friend. “We hope to have a joint meeting next, with alumni from Lafayette, Lake Charles and Jennings.”

By all accounts, these events — part introduction, part cheerleading — have been welcomed by fans.

“We talk to them about how they they can be the 12th man,” Ellis said. “We’ve had a good reaction.”

For Broadway, a new coach still trying to integrate into the rich tradition of Grambling football, this is an important team-building effort.

Grambling’s spring drills, so far, seemed to indicate that a remade receiver group was ready to fill gaping holes left with the departure of seniors Clyde Edwards and Reggie Jackson — and that the offensive line was still a work in progress.

Monday’s session, which included the first scrimmage of the offseason, largely confirmed both things.

Receiver Nick Lewis, seeing a crease in the defense, shook free for a 47-yard run and catch to the 10 in the opening drive by the first teamers.

“He’s always a threat,” senior quarterback Brandon Landers said of Lewis, who made a series of dramatic catches last season. “We saw that the safety had moved over, and I immediately stepped that way.”

But, just that quick, the pocket collapsed on consecutive plays around Landers, then a couple of the other still-coalescing wideouts confused their routes. Landers did all that he could: He dumped it off or threw it away.

That, in itself, was a major improvement for player once known for forcing in passes under similar conditions.

“Brandon has really improved,” said second-year Grambling Rod Broadway. “He’s learned how to get rid of the ball, and he also has done everything we’ve asked him to do so far this spring.”

Still, that was as far as the first team would get on Monday. Sophomore running back Frank Warren, who’s noticeably bulkier, experienced similar trouble in finding safe passage through Grambling’s makeshift line.

His game-long rush of 12 yards came on the first team’s second possession. He also added a first-down underneath reception on the scrimmage’s final drive.

“It’s a lot easier this year,” Warren said of his second spring practices. “I’m used to college speed now.”

The third drive by the first team was marred, first, by a pulling lineman running into fellow sophomore running back Cornelius Walker on a rush and then a bad snap on a second-down shotgun play to Landers.

Greg Dillon, meanwhile, seems to have solidified a spot as the backup passer. His striking 50-yard run to the 13 meant little, however, when the rest of the drive resulted in minus-12 yards.

Derrick Johnson, a product of Monroe’s Carroll High, filled in with passion and coiled aggression at middle linebacker as presumptive starter John Carter continues to recover from a concussion suffered a week ago in practice.

“If we can get lined up right and play hard,” Broadway said, “we’ll be alright defensively.”

The undersized Johnson, who reminds me of Sam Mills, made critical stops in the intial down of the scrimmage and then against Walker on third down in the third possession.

Grambling’s offense, though it still lacks ideal rhythm up front, scored consecutive touchdowns in its second scrimmage — and displayed noticeable swagger across the skill positions.

Receiver Nick Lewis, as per usual, ripped off a 23-yard catch on the initial drive in today’s scrimmage, the second of GSU’s spring sessions. Converted quarterback Larry Donnell also made a savvy sideline move from the tight end position in the subsequent possession.

The first team then scored on a boot from senior quarterback Brandon Landers from the 11, and on a red-zone passing play in the corner to receiver Terrance Dunn.

“Scoring two, back to back, that felt good,” said Landers, whose starting offense had been shut out in Grambling’s first scrimmage, held two nights ago.

A highlight, beyond the score, was when Landers hit emerging star Kiare Thompson for a 20-yard pass in the fourth possession, despite a bad snap in the shotgun.

Other breakdowns would crop up. Landers scarcely had time to throw (and the receiver apparently slipped) on his only near interception, a tipped ball that almost dropped into linebacker Keefe Hall’s hands.

Frank Warren, working through a groin injury, was little used — giving Cornelius Walker an opportunity to display his wares. But, like Warren on Monday, he often had trouble finding purchase behind a make-shift group up front.

“We’ve all got to dig a little deeper,” second-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway said. “The players, and the coaches. Right now, we’re just not that good. Seven days in, I’d like to see more progress.”

Receiver Larry Kerlegan, another former quarterback, looked far more comfortable — and has clearly been working to get better at the mechanics of his new spot. Derrick Johnson continues to impress at middle linebacker.

On the second team, defensive back King Beckwith — who, like Johnson, is a former Monroe-area prep standout — laid perhaps the biggest lick of the night when Bogalusa walk-on passer Greg Dillon left a pass a bit too high. J.R. Spivey, nephew of Grambling passing legend James Harris, saw time as a scatback with that unit, as well.

More of my impressions (with apologies to Peter King) on Grambling’s spring sessions, which conclude on Saturday …

–I THINK it’s a good sign that second-year coach Rod Broadway let the team out early today, after the offense marched down the field for a quick six. That unit (suffering the loss of senior leadership on the line and receiver units) needs all the emotional support it can get — and, perhaps, just as importantly, it’s a sign that this team and its coaches are learning to trust one another. These sessions have been like night and day from last year, a feeling-out period that Broadway once described as “running in quick sand.”

–I THINK receiver Kiare Thompson — an early spring breakout star — is wearing down some. Not surprising for such a young player. If he does what he needs to do in terms of conditioning this summer, however, that’s a name that will become familiar in our game stories.

–I THINK offensive lineman Revay Smith is going to start. Even so, I can see as many as three incoming players taking the field in the fall up front. But Smith’s nasty attitude and work ethic have earned him a spot too, if you ask me. I just don’t know if it will be at center, where he’s worked all spring.

–I THINK, meanwhile, that converted quarterback Larry Donnell is going to be great at tight end. He’s got good hands, and has shown an early aptitude for blocking. He just needs to bulk up.

–I THINK that Grambling’s defense, which is calling itself the “Dark Side,” is going to continue to improve — despite the absence of a true middle linebacker. Monroe native Derrick Johnson has impressed. Too, the group lost senior backfield leadership in DeMichael Dizer and Zaire Wilborn, but has found capable replacements in T.J. McCord and Jeffrey Jack, respectively. Nigel Copeland and Kenneth Anio should start at the corners.

Many Grambling lettermen from over the years were to receive a personal letter from second-year football coach Rod Broadway this week — inviting them to Saturday’s Black and Gold spring scrimmage and, more importantly, asking for their consistent input on the program.

A highlight is sure to be a post-game meal, with a selection of local-legend cooks — Gram-Man, Shoes and, of course, long-time assistant coach Sammy White — sizzling up barbeque and other culinary delights.

Like, yeah, raccoon. Note to Gram-Man: I may need something stronger than Diet Coke this time to wash it all down again.

Broadway, by the way, has continued to open up, as he grows more comfortable in the corner office at the Robinson Stadium Support Facility.

He also invited these longtime Grambling stakeholders to feel free to stop in — stressing an open-door policy: “It is my intent to continue to move our football program to higher heights as well as graduate top notch student-athletes,” Broadway wrote in the letter. “In an effort to make the Grambling football program better, I will need your continued support. Anytime you guys are on campus, please come by the football office and visit us.”

Their input would be invaluable. Broadway is to be commended for making the gesture.

I intend to do that after I get some of Sammy’s chicken.

A POST-GAME POST, 4/19/08:
Second-year Grambling coach Rod Broadway finished up with a joke, reminding a jam-packed room full of former lettermen that the fish would be gone soon if they didn’t get downstairs.

It was just the right touch for a post-game meeting on this Black and Gold game Saturday that was by turns friendly introduction, emotional homecoming and roof-raising revival for the ongoing efforts to construct a museum in honor of their former coach, the late Eddie Robinson.

The names there were as familiar as they were important to the future of Grambling’s program, and that museum project: Everson Walls. Leonard Griffin. The Howell Brothers. Jerry Gordon. The Ensleys. Larry Metevia. And many, many more.

I saw David Hicks, a linebacker under Robinson successors Williams and Spears, taking a picture with Walls — one of Coach Rob’s last legends. It was that kind of event.

Broadway had talked, moments before, about meeting Rob in 1998 — and how, even in that brief moment, he had been enthralled. Wilbert Ellis, a Robinson family friend and longtime former Grambling baseball coach, then proceeded to raise the roof.

“Whatever I am, whatever you are,” he said, as emotions welled, “Grambling made us. United, we can do anything.”

There was the sense, with so many of Robinson’s former players there, that he inhabited this place again — and that, as Ellis so eloquently put it, it would “go on, and on … forever.”

Moments later, as everyone dug into the evening’s meal, they were a family once more. Even a year after his death, Robinson still has that power.


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