When we last visited Grambling State, it appeared sophomore Damian Jefferson and junior Bakari Maxwell were going to be the rising star receivers for the Tigers. It looked like quarterback D.J. Williams would be more comfortable as a starter, and that the backfield would be Dawrence Roberts, followed by more Dawrence Roberts. Punt returns and field goals? Fabian Carter looked experienced, cool, and collected.
And then came the season opener, in which Maxwell and Jefferson did not play, the lead rusher was the backup, Jeremy Runner, Grambling muffed two punts (leading to nine points for Alcorn State) missed two field goals, gave up a 21-9 lead only to lose the game by one point.
There were bright spots-- backup running back Jeremy Runner played the entire second half (Roberts was out with cramps) and rung up 166 yards on only 13 carries. D.J. Williams did not throw any interceptions. Fabian Carter-- new to field goals-- will improve.
To digest the game, and get a feel for what GSU will look like against TCU, Frogs O' War again probed Jerit Roser, a reporter for the Monroe (La) News-Star for insights. He'll appear again on Friday for a more broadly focused Q&A about GSU.
In the meantime, read up about TCU's first opponent's first game.
FOW: If you were the coach, and could wave a magic wand and get only one of these by Saturday, which would it be: a capable punt returner, a capable kicker, or a sure-thing wide receiver?
Jerit Roser: If I were the coach, I'm probably going kicker ... with punt returner as the second choice. I think Grambling's going to probably like what it's seen from its receivers so far. Musa Mahmud and Anthony McGhee established themselves as solid options on offense, and Robert Bailey made a few catches as well, and that receiving corps will probably only continue to establish itself as time progresses. To that same effect, the punt return situation will probably work itself out. It's impossible to look at the season opener and not place a lot of the blame on the muffed punt returns that led to nine Alcorn State points, but there are definitely guys who can come in there and straighten that spot out if the guys who coughed up the ball can't do so. Senior cornerback Edward Patterson stands out there once he gets his ankle injury figured out. A sure-thing kicker is an underrated thing, though, and that's the option here I think has the lowest likelihood of presenting itself -- at least to the degree to which Grambling had grown accustomed. The Tigers' public address announcer referred to now-departed kicker Zoltan Riazzo as "ATM ... automatic money" during the past few seasons' worth of home games. Zoltan booted a field goal from 50+ in last season's Bayou Classic, the big rivalry match against Southern in the Superdome in New Orleans. I like Fabian Carter a lot, and he's a good punter. But he's not going to turn into Zoltan Riazzo over the course of this season. Once he gets more used to kicking in game situations, I think he'll be better than he showed Saturday, but the Tigers won't be banking on field goals from 50+ yards this season, certainly not as "automatic."
FOW: Did junior Williams' lack of interceptions against Alcorn State in week 1 show us that he's progressed since 2011?
Jerit Roser: If you look from first part of the 2011 season to first part of the 2012 season so far, sure, but D.J. had really started clicking late last season with two really nice games to finish the regular season, and I don't know that he looked better against Alcorn State than he did in those games. His lone interception in the season opener was essentially a preemptive punt he launched up to the sideline on third-and-a-mile, and the Braves' catching it regained possession within their own 10-yard line. I can't fault him too much for that. One of the positives that most stood out for D.J., though, was the way he seemed to trust his receivers, particularly Musa Mahmud and Anthony McGhee. He placed the ball pretty nicely (one play on which an ASU DB broke up a near-TD from Musa on a long play stands out), and he took chances was willing to give Musa and Anthony opportunities to go get the ball from a position in which the Braves seemed to only be able to force an incompletion at-best.
FOW: Is Jeremy Runner better than Dawrence Roberts?
Jerit Roser: I don't know where Jeremy Runner and Dawrence Roberts will stand as time progresses, but I'm certainly not willing to say Jeremy's better at this juncture. The Grambling coaches would have the best insight to that, and those guys opted to start Dawrence on Saturday. Dawrence was the SWAC's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year for a reason and looked really, really good to open the game against Alcorn State. Cramps kept him out in the second half, and Jeremy filled in really well for the most part. The GSU coaches are looking at the situation more as "Great, we have three guys we can use there" than anything, though. Juwan Martin scored the Tigers' first points of the season, and the Tigers will utilize all three players moving forward. What Jeremy Runner does have going for him is a likely higher rate of progression this season, though. Dawrence led the team in rushing in 2011 while Jeremy missed a year of football. Jeremy struggled some with conditioning early in the fall, and so expecting him to only continuing to improve throughout this season is probably a safe bet.
FOW: GSU's gave up some big runs; is it too early to say that the Tigers' defense is not much improved over last season's crew?
Jerit Roser: I think it's probably too early to say much of anything in any regard honestly. That was a big lesson to take from 2011, both from Grambling and Louisiana Tech. Both schools started 1-4, and then all of a sudden both are conference champions and Tech's facing TCU in arguably the biggest bowl game in school history. The Grambling defense looked really good in the first half against Alcorn State and then really bad in the second half. It may have just worn down over time after being put in some poor situations at times, and I'd expect it to continue to improve as it continues to gel. There's a whole lot of new faces on that side of the ball. A converted running back played one corner. A freshman played the other once Patterson headed to the locker room. One safety only recently got cleared following a knee injury. The linebackers had a first-time starter replacing Grambling's best defensive player from a year ago. And the defensive line was totally full of new faces, including a true freshman who went start to finish. I don't know how much improvement we'll see from Week 1 to Week 2, but the Tigers should be all right once SWAC play heats up. Or not. No one ever really knows.
FOW: I have a theory that you can't blame close losses on special teams, however tempting that may be. Close losses are close because the offense and defense fail to do their jobs. (This is why I don't blame TCU's kicker for losing against Utah in 2008, when a BCS berth was on the line. He missed two field goals, and TCU lost by 3 points.) Let's test that theory with the GSU opener: do you think GSU's offense and defense failed to do their jobs against Alcorn State?
Jerit Roser: here's something to be said for that theory, but you have to hold special teams accontable to some degree too. Football has three phases, and you can't give special teams a complete pass just because they're not on the field as much as offense or defense. You especially can't give special teams a pass when they miss two field goals, cough up two punt returns and give up multiple big kick returns while also having multiple of their own big kick returns brought back on penalties. Special teams was clearly the weakest link against Alcorn State, but neither offense or defense was flawless by any means. You can't blame the loss solely on special teams, but special teams doesn't get a pass either.
FOW: What improvements do you expect GSU to be able to show against TCU on Saturday?
Jerit Roser: The punt return situation will probably be the most noticeable difference. Other than that, it's hard to really judge Grambling against TCU. FBS and FCS programs just have such different resources. Grambling will play a school like TCU to make some money, to make sure recruits in the area know the name and to prepare itself for SWAC play, but Grambling's not going to necessarily measure itself against BCS schools. It wouldn't be fair to do so.
FOW: How do you see the game with TCU playing out?
Jerit Roser: The TCU game will serve as a nice learning experience for a young Grambling team ... a chance for those kids to gain some seasoning before any more games count on the conference record. Grambling needs to see some sparks, but the game should belong to TCU.