by Brandon Chatmon
It’s time for another edition of Behind Enemy Lines:
This week my Q&A session is with Nick Deriso of TheDerisoReport.com. Nick has followed Grambling for a decade including six SWAC championship game appearances.
Few people know Grambling State football like Nick Deriso.
So here we go:
Brandon Chatmon: Who are the offensive players on the Grambling roster that OSU fans should keep an eye on?
Nick Deriso: Grambling’s principal big-play threat so far this season has been Frank Warren, a junior running back in his third year with the offense. Warren leads the program’s home league, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, in yards per carry, total yards and yards per game.
Fellow junior Greg Dillon is an athletic presence at quarterback, but has struggled with turnovers a season after earning MVP honors in the season-ending Bayou Classic (a nationally televised NBC game against in-state rival Southern University) and in the SWAC Championship Game.
He’s found a solid option in 6-2, 205-pound wideout Van Phillips, a sophomore, but a Grambling offense still rounding into shape for 2009 doesn’t have any receivers in the SWAC Top 10.
BC: Who are the Tigers’ top defenders?
ND: Junior defensive end Christian Anthony is this team’s most explosive athlete, and a contender for the Buck Buchanan Award recognizing the FCS’s defensive player of the year. Already, he’s had a hand in three scores off interceptions made in the flat. That helped him to national FCS defensive player of the week honors after Grambling’s win over Northwestern State two Saturdays ago.
The team is rebuilding along its interior line and in the linebacking corps, but has played well in the secondary — in particular Nigel Copeland and T.J. McCord, who leads the team in stops.
Together, they’ve pushed Grambling to a 20th ranking among FCS programs for in pass efficiency defense (98.35); the Tigers are No. 32 in passing defense (159.7 ypg). Anthony leads the SWAC in tackles for a loss; linebacker Cliff Exama leads the league in fumble recoveries.
BC: What is the atmosphere around the team heading into this game? How do they view it?
ND: This is a program that has, over the years, made a habit of playing up. So Grambling players don’t enter Saturday’s matchup in an unfamiliar spot.
That said, they know just what that spot is: An underdog of dizzying proportions. Grambling has played six FBS foes since 2000, losing by an average of 33 points — and twice (Louisville, 2000; San Jose State, 2003) getting shut out.
That said, they played competitively against Houston in 2006 and Pittsburgh in 2007, and history shows that the team learns much from these difficult challenges.
Grambling went 11-1 in 2008 after an opening loss to Nevada, earning head coach Rod Broadway his first SWAC championship. The Tigers won 8 games in a row after falling to Louisville in 2000; and 10 consecutive games after losing to Washington State in 2005 — claiming the league crown in each of those years, as well.
BC: Does Grambling have any true freshman expected to make an impact on Saturday?
ND: Rod Broadway has made a habit of starting the best performer on his roster, regardless of classification — beginning in his first season with Warren, who runs in tandem with another third-year starter in junior Cornelius Walker.
This year, the team has a pair of freshmen in the kicking game: Punter Fabian Carter (8th in the SWAC with a 36-yard average), who has been solid when protected; and placekicker Ari Johnson, who is No. 3 in the league for scoring among kickers.
BC: Who are the top NFL prospects on the team?
ND: Anthony is the team’s best NFL prospect right now, though only a junior. This FBS contest will play a critical role in his eventual candidacy for the draft — just as the Washington State game did for Jason Hatcher, the Grambling product (also a defensive end who wore No. 90) taken in 2006 in the third round by the Dallas Cowboys. Scouts that year visiting Grambling focused most intently on how Hatcher fared against an upper-divisional foe — and I think the same will hold true for Chris.
BC: The Tiger band is internationally known for its exploits, do the football players hold any ill will towards the band? (Because this week I’ve had more people ask me about the band than the actual team.)
ND: Grambling football made its name nationally in combination with the Tiger Marching Band, and both have been a point of pride at the university for decades. That’s not atypical of black college programs across America, really. The pageantry of this brand of football is, by history and design, intertwined with the schools’ musical travelling companions. Together, they make for quite a show.
BC: What does Coach Broadway want to get out of this game? His statements to you make me think he’s not happy with how his team is playing heading into Saturday.
ND: He’s just not one to settle into complacency.
This is a coach who criticized Anthony’s gap-control the week he was named FCS national defensive player of the week.
I was surprised, in fact, that Broadway didn’t talk about improving as a team in the post-game news conference after capturing his 10th win in a row at the SWAC Championship Game in 2009. That was, as far as I could remember, the only time he didn’t.
Broadway keeps his eyes on the horizon.
That said, he knows exactly what he’s heading into at Oklahoma State. Broadway coached defensive linemen for six seasons at the University of Florida with Steve Spurrier (a stint that included the Gators’ 1996 national championship). He knows he’s outnumbered, both on the field and in the stands. He’ll judge the team’s performance on how well they handle this steep adversity, and find coachable moments in how the players compete.
BC: Which Cowboys player scares the Tigers the most? Dez Bryant, Zac Robinson, etc?
ND: I can’t speak for the team, but I expect they have a healthy respect for Robinson, who has been terrific. Perhaps he’ll make a mistake. That’s what an opportunistic Grambling defense has to be hoping, anyway.
BC: Who is the most overlooked/underrated player on the team?
ND: I’d say senior tight end Larry Donnell. He’s got a good frame at 6-5, 225, and dependable hands. He’s not just underrated from the outside looking in; I don’t think Grambling does all that great of a job in integrating him into the playcalling. If they ever do, Donnell will be a dangerous weapon — both as a check down and as a punishing over-the-middle target.
BC: What’s the one thing Cowboys fans will learn about Grambling football on Saturday?
ND: The same thing a trio of “state” schools already have this season — South Carolina, Northwestern and Jackson — no doubt came away with: Christian Anthony is for real.
I don’t know that he can take over this game with the same ease that he did against those more evenly matched foes, but I expect him to hold his own.