Grambling returns key leadership on defense, starting with Clifford Yoshida

Grambling began its 2011 fall sessions with a deep well of leadership on defense, beginning with returning coordinator Clifford Yoshida.

“Coach Yoshida has been doing this a long time,” Grambling coach Doug Williams told me. “I think we’ve all got respect for what he has done – and he’s still doing a good job.”

Yoshida, who had made successful stops at 10 programs over the years before taking over the Tigers’ defense in 2007, is one of the few holdovers from the previous staff under Rod Broadway. Upon arriving, “Coach Yo” was 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.

He had quick start in Grambling, too, helping the team to a pair of Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship Games in 2007-08. That was quite a feat, considering the once-proud Grambling defense had dissolved into the SWAC’s worst against the run — giving up more than 200 yards on the ground four times in 2006. GSU, in fact, only held one opponent to less than 100 yards rushing that season.

Under Yoshida, Grambling moved up six spots to No. 2 in the conference for total defense one year later. 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, surrendering up 342 yards a game and just one score shy of a league-worst number of touchdowns.

A season later, 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 picked off 5 in ’03 — as GSU forced nearly two turnovers a game in 2008 on the way to both the SWAC 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. Yoshida also helped mentor SWAC and Sheridan Broadcasting Network defensive player of the year Christian Anthony along the way.

In 2011, Yoshida will oversee a unit that slipped to No. 5 in Broadway’s last campaign before departing, but remained stout against the run – finishing just five years behind league-leading Texas Southern. Williams credits an upperclassman-laden line that includes a quartet of senior starters – defensive tackle Antoine Rogers, nose tackle Stuart Hein, end Antonio Leonard and key reserve Jhhron Spencer, also a tackle – along with junior Jomarcus Savage.

“The defensive front seven played well last year,” Williams told me, “and most of them are back. With the addition of some young guys, we ought to be pretty good up front. That should give the people on the backend time to become pretty good players.”

The starting linebacker corps includes two sophomore starters in mike Jacarde Carter and sam Trey Williams – also returns weakside force Cliff Exama, a graduate student who will provide a critical lockerroom presence. Grambling’s secondary is manned by two first-team seniors in cornerbacks Dominic Bell and David Stuckman, as well as junior starters Naquan Smith (rover) and Stephen McCord (free safety).

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