Doug Williams, the Tigers' head coach, is a big deal in the SWAC. He played for Eddie Robinson, and left the SWAC a few years ago as one of the most successful head coaches in that conference. When Williams returned to GSU in March 2011, GSU immediately became a favorite to win the SWAC west division. Williams is a congenial man, and an entertaining interview (here's his SWAC championship pre-game interview).
Williams took over the program the day after signing day (his son, D.J., the quarterback, was already enrolled at GSU). He frankly admits he wondered if his new team would buy in to his running the program, and his pleasant surprise that they did.
But the ride began bumpily. GSU was trying to replace multi-year starters all over the offense, including at quarterback and runningback, while transitioning from a spread-option offense to a more traditional attack. GSU won its first game, but lost its next four. The Tigers were switching between two quarterbacks, and not having success with either. Grambling State's defense was decidedly unexceptional. The team's only bright spots seemed to be Louis Mario's receiving and Cliff Exama's linebacking; Mario had one of the best-ever seasons for a GSU receiver, and Cliff Exama was the team leader in '11.
The sixth game of the season, homecoming against Concordia College, marked the turnaround.
Frank Rivers led the team to a 44-0 romp over the lower-division team, and from then on it was all wins in Grambling. Freshman receiver Damian Jefferson and Junior Bakari Maxwell emerged in the second half of the season as threats to compliment Louis Mario. Sophomore Dawrence Roberts punished Jackson State-- the best team in the conference, but ineligible for post-season play-- on the ground. Defensive end Jomarcus Savage had a strong second half of the season as he recovered from an injury.
In 2011 the Tigers won close games-- after the blowout win over Concordia, the Tigers won five games by 7.5 points, on average. GSU's four loses were by an average 14 points apiece. The final close game was the conference championship, against Alabama A&M, which Grambling State won by a single point. Gary Patterson applauds.
Obvious holes in 2012's team are primarily on defensive. GSU plays a 4-3-4 defense, and graduates three of its starting defensive lineman, and two backups. The returner, end Jomarcus Savage, was the best of the four. Tackle leader and team leader Cliff Exama also graduates at linebacker. TCU gets to watch GSU's opener to see how the Tigers replace so many graduated players in the defensive front seven.
Most of GSU's secondary returns, but that's not necessary good. The Tigers gave up the most passing yards in the SWAC (233 p/game). Coach Williams said optimistic things about the new-look defensive line in the spring.
Punting and kick returns were a bright spot last season, and GSU's punter and returner both are back for 2012. Fabian Carter, the punter, led the squad which averaged 40.9 yards per punt; Edward Patterson, the return man, led the squad that averaged 13 and 22 yards for punt and kick returns, respectively. Grambling State must find a new long snapper and place kicker this off-season.
Replacing Louis Mario's production at receiver is a big issue for the offense. Anthony McGhee, Richard Wilson, Musa Mahmud, and Robert Bailey had good springs; whether any of them, or last season's second bests Bakari Maxwell and Damian Jefferson will seize the opportunity remains to be seen.
D.J. Williams appears to have taken the reins as the starting QB in the spring, but Frank Rivers had an excellent spring game, and one wonders if that competition is yet unfinished.
The pre-preseason feel for this matchup is something akin to what the Texas State game felt like, in 2009. That matchup featured an over-achieving 2A team that could make some plays against TCU, but was generally overmatched, and in the end, lost by a big margin.