Back in the Day: Grambling’s Spring 2006 reports

Nick’s note: As Grambling continues its spring break, we look back at offseason training from 2006, one of the more notable recent moments of transition for this team at the quarterback position:

Grambling coach Melvin Spears learned a lasting lesson in 2004: You can’t have too many quarterbacks.

Spears started Bruce Eugene on the opening day of his interim coaching season. But by the third quarter against Alcorn, a blown knee had sent Eugene to the bench – and only by winning three of the final four games of 2004, as the offense became more run-oriented, did Spears manage a winning campaign.

That’s why he was still looking for quarterbacks on the eve of spring sessions this year.

Even though the roster includes Brandon Landers, who rose to conference freshman of the year honors in relief of Eugene in 2004, as well as renowned Houston, Texas, product Larry Kerlegan.

Grambling took a look at Kevin Atkins from Durham, N.C.’s Southern High – he was 46-7 record as a prep starter – but now seems set on signing Desmond Brentley of Perry High in Pittsburgh.

His high school teammates called him “Culpepper,” after new Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper. “I guess because I’m kind of big, like him,” Brentley once said.

He was 6-2, and 220 pounds as a junior. Today, Brentley stands at an impressive 6-3 and 228 – and with 4.7-second speed.

No laurel resting here.

Grambling’s first day of spring sessions was intense and very long, eerily mirroring the opening practices of 2005 – when the team had last been seen going winless at home, only to salvage a winning season with a win in the finale against Southern in the Bayou Classic.

Of course, things went a little differently in the year that followed. Grambling would streak to an undefeated conference mark, winning its 21st SWAC title – and first under Melvin Spears as head coach.

You wouldn’t know it at this practice – which, after running long, then extended to a brutal running session for those who had missed study hall.

“Where’s your sense of URGENCY?” Spears bellowed, in a fiery post-practice talk. “There is too much walking around. We practice like we play … FULL SPEED. The little things will keep us from being outstanding.”

The veterans understood. Spears pushed them just as hard all year at 6-5 in 2004 as he did at 11-1 in his second season.

“You just focus on the task at hand,” said quarterback Brandon Landers. “Coach is always stressing that you have to pay attention to details.”

Tiger bites: Former standouts Bruce Eugene and Jason Hatcher, now pro prospects, were both on hand to offer mentoring to their successors. Eugene was seen stressing footwork techniques he picked up at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. … Cornerback Greg Fassitt was in street clothes as he continues nursing a groin injury. … Josh Jollivette – a 6-2, 230-pound former district MVP at linebacker for Houston’s North Shore High School – saw time at deep snapper. … Receiver LaKeldrick Bridges is lickety-split fast. Better still, he can catch.

They sound like musket fire, complete with whoops and wails immediately afterward.

New defensive line assistant Brett Beard has this hulking group launching itself from hands and knees during these spring sessions, belly-flopping on tackling dummies with a thundering percussion.

Beard says this will help sharpen explosiveness along the line, with an eye toward establishing at the point of attack and disrupting the offensive player’s rhythm.

“What we discovered, looking at film from last year, was a slowness in getting off the ball,” said GSU coach Melvin Spears, who hired Beard away from Washington and Lee. Beard had previously been a standout lineman at Vanderbilt as an undergraduate and then Southeastern Louisiana in graduate school.

The cushions are there to ward off injury since the lineman are asked to keep their arms straight out in front of themselves. “Without the dummies,” Beard jokes, “it’s almost abuse.”

He learned the technique through occasional use under position coach Dennis Harrison at Vandy, and Beard continued practicing with it regularly in personal sessions to hone his skills.

“This drill works the hips, and it ensures that you come off your toes,” Beard said. “That way, it’s easier to get to the ball. If your ‘get off’ is good, you automatically beat your guy. Last year, the line wasn’t always as quick as it could have been. That’s what I am stressing.”

Pity these poor tackling dummies. That job just got worse.

Baton Rouge product Derrek Governor is set to start at left tackle for Grambling, but he’s out right now with a groin injury.

That’s meant a move to the blind side for RT/G Andre Bennett, since he’s the most experienced player on the offensive line.

That’s also meant Bennett – all 6-6, 350 pounds of him – could be seen rumbling downfield for a pass last week on the tackle-eligible play that coaches have installed.

It’s an image that must send shivers down the spine of any 5-10 speedster manning a corner in the SWAC.

Carl Roberts, Bennett’s position coach, confirmed that the play was designed Governor, but (being a former lineman himself) couldn’t help but ruminate on what it might mean for Big Bennett to score.

“That,” said Roberts, “would really be something.”

Governor is expected back by the autumn sessons, along with a group of impact freshmen.

“It might look thin now,” said GSU coach Melvin Spears, “but it won’t be.”

In fact, no unit will be bolstered more by this fall’s incoming class than Grambling’s offensive line. Look for George Long – the mammoth 6-6, 360-pound Fredricksburg, Va., prep signing that pushed Grambling to No. 46 in ESPN Insider’s national signing day rankings – as well as Jerome King and Randall Bennett to earn playing time.

Thin, it won’t be. Figuratively and literally.

Georgia Tech transfer LaKeldrick “Burner” Bridges’ growing rep on Grambling’s campus might take some time to spread.

After all, returning GSU stars Clyde Edwards and Henry Tolbert combined for more than 2,400 yards and 29 touchdowns during GSU’s 2005 title run.

“He’s never been in the SWAC, so the defenses will be keying on Tolbert and Clyde,” said quarterback Brandon Landers. “That will free Bridges up.”

GSU is counting on it. This guy runs like his pants are on fire and his hair is catching.

Still, I’m not sure where opposing teams will send an extra man any more.

“Touchdown” Tolbert began to consistently draw double teams late in 2005 as he marched toward the school record for touchdowns in a season. Edwards, a sophomore, was the check down – and he finished at the No. 2 spot for yards and touchdowns.

Maybe switch to Belichick’s old 2-4-5 scheme with the Giants.

“Bridges is going to keep double coverage off of Tolbert,” said GSU offensive coordinator Sammy White. “That’s especially true over those first few games, when nobody will have film on this guy.”

After that, he’s simply going to keep defensive coordinators up at night.

Anybody up for a 1-2-8?

GSU coach Melvin Spears, speaking to the team after Tuesday night’s spring session, pinpointed an obvious area for improvement in 2006.

The penalty flags that rained down on these reigning conference champions last year.

Grambling was a league-worst for number of fouls (132), total yards of penalties (1,256) and average penalty yards per game (104.7) – spots it held for most of the season. GSU averaged 11 per night over a 12-game campaign.

“One thing we’re not going to tolerate is personal fouls,” Spears said. “We had too, too many last year. We want you to play full speed, but when that whistle blows, you shut it down.”

Grambling’s worst day came on the final game of the year when the Tigers, playing for the title against Alabama A&M, were called for 16 penalties for 146 yards – both season highs. The 16-penalty day tied GSU for the worst by any team in the conference in 2005.

Ironically, a Grambling team holds the NCAA mark for penalties.

In 1977, the Tigers – then quarterbacked by Doug Williams – averaged nearly 13 a game, finishing with 142 in an 11-game season. That 1977 team also holds the NCAA record for penalty yards per game, with 134.

Redshirt sophomore Brandon Landers saw stiff competition from Larry Kerlegan during Saturday’s Black and Gold game – as the two quarterbacks vying to replace Bruce Eugene shared playing time under center.

Landers finished 8-for-16 for 257 yards, with two touchdowns (one in the air, another on the ground) and an interception. Kerlegan, meanwhile, was 11-of-15 for 193 yards, with two passing scores and one pick.

GSU coach Melvin Spears lamented inconsistency from both quarterbacks on Saturday, late from Landers and early from Kerlegan. He also noted that problems with protection by the second teamers contributed to some of the misfires.

“We’ve still got work to do,” Spears said.

Whoever wins the starting job will have to deal with crushing expectations, trying to succeed despite the pressures of following the school’s most prolific passer.

“We expect some questions about whether we can go wire-to-wire with a new quarterback,” Spears said. “But all the pieces are in place. We just have to play at a very high level.”

For his part, Landers is aware of Eugene’s towering stats – and he’s not running from the comparison.

“You can’t get it wrong about Bruce,” Landers said. “His numbers speak for themselves. The main thing is continuing to work to get better. I just want to follow up on what he has done.”

Kerlegan certainly has all the tools. The question has always been whether this former prop can stick with his studies.

“One of the reasons they worked so hard, their motivation, is because they know everybody is saying the only reason we won was because we had Bruce back,” Spears said. “But these guys believe in themselves. They know what it takes to be a champion.”

Second-year defensive backs coach Sam Petitto’s group continues to impress.

Credit Petitto, whose staccato instructions and encouragement could be clearly heard Saturday at the Black and Gold Game, even with the Tiger Marching Band burning and blasting on the other side of the field.

A guy with a nimble football mind, he’s also a coach’s coach – intense but fair, and continually pushing himself and his players.

“He’s always working,” said Wossman product Bakari Guice, who is expected to start at cornerback. “He takes so much pride in how we play.”

Petitto has had a tight focus since he arrived in 2005: Keeping defensive backs in phase. As receivers gain separation, seams open for passes.

But he’s more than a tactician. Don’t be surprised if he again spends this offseason thoughtfully tinkering with Grambling’s conditioning program, already the most progressive in the SWAC.

“They’ve worked on a number of different things, from flexibility to understanding the game,” said GSU coach Melvin Spears, who hired the former Southeastern Louisiana assistant.

“What I like about what Sam has done is, they are prepared week-in and week-out,” Spears said. “If you look at our secondary, we are so much better.”

That includes a best-in-the-conference mark for interceptions and a No. 1 ranking against the pass last season, as well as a couple of acrobatic picks in the weekend scrimmage.

Yet Petitto – and his entire unit, really – can’t attract the same attention that Grambling’s eye-popping passing attack always does.

“This offense will always be up front,” Guice said. “That’s OK. We just do what we do.”

Petitto’s a big part of that.

The dust had hardly settled on Grambling’s spring sessions and the football coaches were already meeting to evaluate the roster in advance of next month’s recruiting trips.

“We looked at our team, and at our immediate needs based on personnel, this morning,” Grambling coach Melvin Spears said late Tuesday.

The staff has noted a particular need for defensive linemen and linebackers.

GSU is set at the quarterback, secondary and receiver spots, and its most recent signing day class was heavy on offensive linemen and running backs.

Each GSU assistant is assigned a general area to comb for prospects.

Linebackers coach Andre Robinson and offensive line coach Carl Roberts have been given regions where they used to work before being hired at Grambling – with Robinson working Alabama and Roberts in Mississippi.

Spears and defensive coordinator Luther Palmer focus on Texas, with an emphasis on the football programs from the fertile southeastern region.

“I think Houston and the Golden Triangle (Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur) is a big enough talent pool to have two people on it,” Spears said.

Still, Spears is quick to add that local talent will continue to provide a foundation for Grambling squads. “We will always,” he said, “concentrate on Louisiana.”

Offensive coordinator Sammy White is charged with the north central and northeastern parts of the state, his traditional stomping grounds. Defensive backs coach Sam Petitto, an Amite native, is assigned to the Interstate 55 corridor. Running backs coach Vyron Brown handles the area around his hometown of Shreveport.

GSU’s success in 2005 is also attracting national attention, as prospects from all over inundate the football office with videotapes for evaluation.

Rest assured, Spears – a peerless prospect hunter who earned this job on the recruiting trail – won’t be getting any rest any time soon.

Back in the Day: Grambling plays 2005 game against Concordia
Back in the Day: Grambling at ULM, 2007
Back in the Day: Grambling vs. Rick Comegy’s Jackson State
Back in the Day: Spring 2008 reports
Back in the Day: Alcorn State at Grambling, 1994
Back in the Day: Grambling at Alabama State, 2007

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