Turnovers defined a messy initial scrimmage for Grambling football this spring, as its offense coughed up the ball 8 times on Friday evening. First teamers were responsible for 3 of those mistakes, beginning with a Cornelius Walker fumble to end the starting group’s fourth drive.
“Here’s where we stand,” an emotional coach Rod Broadway told the team after the scrimmage ended on — yes — an offensive turnover. “We preach ball protection. How do you think we’re doing on that!?”
Though the playbook still appears to be a work in progress, Grambling’s first-team offense boasted a good mix of run and pass. But Danny Reyes, last year’s back up at quarterback, saw the initial trio of possessions by Grambling’s first-team offense end with out-of-bounds passes to the sideline. Christian Anthony touched Reyes for the sack to stall the offense on its third try.
All three drives began on gritty running plays, with Frank Warren opening the scrimmage with a 3-yard run and gaining 1 on the third possession. Walker gutted out seven on the first-teamers’ second time out.
But the Grambling offense didn’t earn its initial first down of the evening until Kenneth Batiste, running with second team, burst through — on the scrimmage’s fifth possession. Pushed to third down, however, backup quarterback Justin Higgins tossed a Pick 6 to Purdue transfer defensive end Preston Numa, the first of two for the New Orleans-area product playing opposite of Anthony.
Apparently stung by that mishap, the Grambling coaches called a running play on a subsequent third-and-long, and the second-teamers got nowhere. The next drive began with a thud, as the backup line completely broke down in front of Warren. After he was pushed back 10 yards, there was another turnover on a bad snap to Higgins.
The first-team units returned to the field, and Reyes hit on an impressive 27-yard completion. But everything went to pieces for the offense, with an off-sides penalty and then another interception — the fourth already for Grambling’s defense at that early point.
On the sixth first-team possession, Warren exploded for a 29-yard run — slicing through a crowd then showing terrific breakaway speed in the open field. Warren got the call again on the very next play, however, and the defense sniffed it out — sending the offense back four yards. Reyes made a toss to Kiare Thompson for a short gain, but then couldn’t connect on a screen to earn a fresh set of downs. The seventh drive for the 1s concluded when a third-down Reyes pass sailed high.
Yet another interception ended the following sequence of drives for the backups.
After a stalled eighth possession, Damian “Gold Shoes” Jefferson keyed the unit’s deepest penetration into the defensive side of the field, after Reyes connected with the junior Belle Rose, La., receiver on a 25-yard third-down pass — the longest reception of the evening. They’d earlier had some sort of miscommunication on second down, with Jefferson apparently running away from the ball, but Reyes came right back to him. A Thompson reception got the first-team offense to the 35.
Reyes then made a canny change in cadence to draw the defense offsides, before a staggering pair of breakdowns. First, the offense immediately gave back the penalty yardage with its own offsides mistake, then Numa — this guy, as you’ll soon see, was everywhere — batted down a Reyes pass. Possession over.
The first-team offense’s 10th try began with another tough run up the middle, as Walker earned 2 yards the hard way. After two consecutive flags (holding, then offsides), Reyes made a first-down pass over the middle before disaster struck again: A tipped pass to Walker was collected by Numa, again, who returned it for a touchdown — again.
Reyes was under heavy pressure by all out blitz and may have passed a little sooner than Walker expected.
The second teamers returned, but with similar results: Higgins was stood up on a final-down draw play, and the ball was stipped. Bruna Foster then separated Bakari Maxwell from the pigskin with a big third-down hit on a pass to the flat.
Anthony notched a second sack to end the starters’ 12th possession. But Derrick Wilhite missed on an easy pick on the next drive, and that briefly breathed new life into Reyes and Co. The Florida product dashed for an emotional first down but, despite Reyes’ effort, the drive went flat. The next one followed suit.
No. 3 quarterback Calvin Works then fumbled on an option play to end the scrimmage.
It was a humbling evening for the Grambling offense, though perhaps not surprising with so much offseason change — and a defensive group that returns much of its starting cast from 2009.
“If we protect the football,” Broadway told the team on Friday, “we’ll be good enough on defense to win. But we can’t be turning th ball over like this.”
New playcaller Bob Leahy says he is still working on the offensive attack, adding that the ongoing wait for an NCAA ruling on another year of eligibility for 2008-09 starting quarterback Greg Dillon has made that difficult. Dillon told me he could get an answer on that request after Grambling’s spring break, held next week.