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Grambling preseason favorite for SWAC West
In a preseason poll of Southwestern Athletic Conference football coaches, sports information directors and selected media, the favorite for the Western Division crown was a landslide.
With 20 of 25 first-place votes, reigning SWAC champion Grambling was the overwhelming choice, and as coach Doug Williams says, the target is affixed firmly to his back.
“It has been like that for a while,” he said. “As long as they miss it, I’m fine.”
But while Williams, a Grambling man through and through, expects nothing less than titles for the Tigers, he doesn’t feel they’re such a sure bet.
For starters, the team lost nearly a third of its offensive production in receiver Mario Louis, who racked up an astonishing 1,129 yards and 18 touchdowns, both of which led the conference.
Gone too is linebacker Cliff Exama, who led the league in tackles (136) and was fifth in tackles for loss (24). Williams will also need to replace four players on a defensive line that was middle-of-the-road against the run.
“We lost a lot of people that we have to replace with a bunch of young guys,” Williams said. “We’re going to be a lot younger than we were last year. I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing.”
There is some good news though, namely an experienced offensive line to clear the way for running back Dawrence Roberts, the SWAC’s leading rusher at 110.2 yards per game.
At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Roberts was a welcome surprise for Williams and the Tigers.
He was given just two carries in the first three games, then exploded for 203 yards on 27 carries against Alabama A&M, and the rest was history.
“When he did come out of the gates, we were looking at each other on the sideline saying, ‘What were you thinking?’ ” Williams said. “I blamed the offensive coordinator, the offensive coordinator blamed me, but at the end of the day we stopped blaming people and started giving Dawrence Roberts the football.”
Roberts went on to have a monster year, including 195 yards against Southern in the Bayou Classic, and he’ll enter this season as one of the top players in the league.
Williams’ son, D.J. Williams, will handle the passing game, as he has already been named the starter over Frank Rivers, who took over when Williams was injured.
The two rising sophomores finished with comparable numbers — Williams threw for 1,102 yards, 14 TDs and seven interceptions, while Rivers posted 967 yards, 10 TDs and 10 INTs — but Williams is the more polished of the two.
“We don’t have a quarterback competition,” Doug Williams said. “We have Frank in case things don’t work out, but we’re not going into the season with the mentality that we’re going to have a two-quarterback system.”
While Williams is set with his offensive backfield, his attention will be on the defensive line, as he waits and hopes that more playmakers will emerge as the season gets underway.
“Last year we didn’t know we had Dawrence Roberts coming into the season, and we didn’t know we had Mario Louis, but those guys showed up and were a big part of what we did,” Williams said.
“Hopefully this year somebody on the defensive front, some young guys will have an opportunity to stand up and be counted, and hopefully they can do that.”
BY MIKE MCCALL, Baton Rouge Advocate