Tragedy has kept Grambling’s Clifford Yoshida away

Turns out, Grambling’s defense hasn’t been spared from this turbulent offseason, either.

The unit was led by defensive backs coach Sam Washington during its initial spring drills on Monday, as fourth-year coordinator Clifford Yoshida continues on family leave. In quick succession, he lost his wife suddenly and then his mother fell gravely ill since GSU closed out the 2009 campaign with a second consecutive win against Southern in the Bayou Classic.

The program is moving forward, coach Rod Broadway told me, as if the well-loved assistant will not return — a devastating blow to the staff and the team.

“He’s been through so much tragedy,” said standout Grambling defensive end Christian Anthony. “We’re just praying for him.”

Broadway had Yoshida on his North Carolina Central staffs back to 2004. He charged Yo in ’07 with remaking a once-proud Grambling defense that had dissolved into the SWAC’s worst against the run — giving up more than 200 yards on the ground four times over the previous season. GSU, in fact, only held one opponent to less than 100 yards rushing in 2006.

He made a striking improvement, and fast.

Grambling moved up six spots to No. 2 in the conference for total defense one year later, giving up 4.7 per play and 24 total scores, both third in the SWAC. Those numbers were actually better than Grambling’s 2005 campaign, when it last finished at No. 2 — and represent a remarkable jump from 2006.

GSU had slumped to No. 8 over the course of that campaign, Melvin Spears’ last, surrendering up 342 yards a game and just one score shy of a league-worst number of touchdowns.

In a single season, Grambling shot to No. 2 at stopping the run, allowing 70 fewer yards on the ground and eight fewer rushing scores than it had in 2006. GSU had three players in the Top 10 for sacks, and the No. 4 tackler for a loss in Anthony — who also forced a league-leading six fumbles in 2007.

In 2008, opponents averaged just 4.3 yards per play (third in the SWAC), and scored a total of 21 touchdowns (second in the SWAC). Desmond Lenard pulled down a team-leading 6 interceptions — best since Octavious Bond pulled down 5 in ’03 — as GSU forced nearly two turnovers a game in 2008 on the way to both the Southwestern Athletic Conference crown and the mythical black college national title.

Grambling’s turnover margin of plus-24, in fact, was a staggering 17 points higher than SWAC No. 2 Southern. That helped the Tigers earn an NCAA plaque recognizing the defense for nation-leading defensive pass efficiency.

In 2009, Yoshida — who oversees line play — helped fashion Anthony into the dominant defender in this conference.

Playing at defensive end, the junior made five interceptions, and was one of just nine FCS players to have returned two picks for touchdowns. He came within a few yards of a TD a couple of other times, and flipped the ball to a teammate who scored, as well. That led to SWAC defensive player of the year honors, the Sheridan Broadcasting Network’s Mel Blount Defensive Player of the Year Award, a finalist spot in the Buck Buchanan national FCS defensive player of the year polling, the 2009 American Football Coaches Association FCS Coaches’ All-America Team, and third team FCS All-America honors by The Associated Press.

All of this is, actually, nothing new for Yoshida — who had made successful stops at 10 programs over the years. He is perhaps most familiar to Grambling fans as a defensive coach on Pete Richardson’s initial staff at Southern. During his lone season as coordinator and line coach, the Jaguars would go 11-1 on the way to their first-ever Southwestern Athletic Conference title in 1993.

Yoshida has also worked at Utah State (1970, 1972), Wake Forest (1973-77; 1987-92), Duke (1978-81), Virginia Tech (1982-86), East Carolina (1994-2001) and North Carolina A&T (2002), among other programs. Yoshida returned to Baton Rouge in 2006 with Broadway and North Carolina Central and helped fashion a 27-20 win, part of a perfect 11-0 regular season to close out Broadway’s tenure at NCCU.

“He knows the game,” Broadway said, “but he also relates to the players.”

Yoshida joined Broadway’s staff at North Carolina Central just as he began reeling off three seasons in a row featuring eight or more wins, the first in school history. Yo took a unit that was ranked 60th overall in Division II and pushed it to third for takeaways in 2006, including a best-in-a-decade mark of 23 picks. Six came against Southern in Baton Rouge.

His defenses held season-opening opponents to just 12 points over his three years at NCCU, while the offense piled up 142 points. Broadway would win consecutive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles in 2005-06, then make Yo one of just three former assistants to follow him to Grambling.

As defensive coordinator in 2003 at Towson University, Yoshida’s unit led the Patriot League in takeaways, was second in pass defense and third against the run. His ’93 Jaguars allowed SWAC-low averages for yards and points per game.

“He’s a teacher,” Broadway said, “and, to me, coaching is just teaching. … He’s a good coach and a good teacher and, most importantly, he’s a good person.”

Broadway, who lost his own wife a few years ago, would seem to be in a unique position to help Yoshida through his time of grief, and they have spoken constantly through these trying times. But Broadway knows there is only so much he can do.

“We’re supporting him,” Broadway said, “but I told him that this is a journey you’ve got take alone. We all deal with these kind of things in different ways.”

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