After their dramatic turnaround, Grambling eyes even more in 2015 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Grambling quarterback Johnathan Williams splits Southern defenders during the third quarter of Southern's 52-45 win in the Bayou Classic at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Grambling’s turnaround last season caught everyone outside the program by surprise.

The Tigers were perhaps the most improved team in the Football Championship Subdivision, taking Southern to the wire in the race for the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title, finishing 7-2 and 7-5 overall. That came after a disastrous 1-10 season in 2013 that led to Grambling being picked last in the West.

Did the Tigers catch lightning in a bottle? Hardly, said coach Broderick Fobbs, who engineered the turnaround in his first season.

“I thought we underachieved last year, to be honest,” he said. “I thought what we had in us was greater.”

Fobbs’ colleagues and the SWAC sports information directors seem to agree: They picked the Tigers first in the West in their preseason poll.

“I thought we were lacking a little depth last year,” Fobbs said. “I still think we could have played a lot better than we played.”

Grambling lost just four starters — three on defense and one on offense — and has 27 newcomers.

“I’ve always taken the stance that you don’t rebuild; you just build upon what we have at Grambling State University,” Fobbs said. “We believe in everyone carrying their own weight and we play a lot of guys, and it’s purposely done because anytime you’ve got a guy that plays a majority of the time, there’s going to come a time when he’s not there anymore. So for us, it’s about playing 44 guys instead of playing just 22. We believe in sharing the load and playing together as a football team and everyone doing great things in order for us to be successful.”

The Tigers’ success last season was fueled by their big-play ability. They led the SWAC in passing offense (277.2 yards per game) and sacks (45).

But Fobbs is looking for more balance on offense, emphasizing a more physical run game to complement the passing game. The Tigers averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season, and much of the rushing attack came from quarterback Johnathan Williams, who ran for 484 yards and eight touchdowns. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,454 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

When the defense didn’t get sacks, it was susceptible to big plays — and Grambling lost its leading tackler (linebacker Aaron Breed) and two other starters.

Despite the Tigers’ first-place ranking in the preseason poll, they were one of just two teams that didn’t have an offensive or defensive player named to the All-SWAC preseason first team. The other was Mississippi Valley State, which was picked last in the East.

“It says that we really have a balanced team,” said Williams, who was named to the second team. “It’s not just one player or a couple of players. Everybody is putting in equally.”

The other second-team picks were defensive linemen Javonte Williams and Jamison Goins and linebacker Henry Sims.

“We’re pleased with how far we’ve come,” Fobbs said. “A lot of people, in my opinion, underestimate the power of the mind and the mentality behind being successful. It takes ability, but if you believe you can do something — and the reason why you believe you can do it is possibly you’ve done it before and you’ve practiced it before.

“Our goal last year was to win a championship, and we feel like we left something out there on the field.”