bayouclassic2296.112518

Grambling State head coach Broderick Fobbs and his players prepare to take the field against Southern University during the Bayou Classic Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

After a surprising record last year, Grambling is hoping to again surprise pundits when the 2019 football season gets underway.

Between 2015-17, Grambling reeled off 26 consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season wins, a run that included three SWAC championship game appearances, two SWAC titles and the program’s 15th HBCU national title.

The wins and the accolades were harder to come by last year.

The Tigers got off to a 1-3 start and went on to finish 6-5 overall, 4-3 in conference. With a berth in the SWAC title game on the line, Grambling closed its season with a 38-28 loss to Southern in the Bayou Classic, and finished with five losses for the first time since Fobbs’ first year.

According to Fobbs, the key to Grambling’s return to prosperity comes from within the team.

“The thing I think about is that I’m constantly going through personnel, and comparing my personnel to previous years,” he said. “Then, secondly, it’s the mentality of our players — the togetherness, the family bond. We’re always focused on trying to make sure we become a family.

“When you play for the guy that’s on the right and left of you, that’s when you get something special.”

If Grambling does come up with something special, it will prove the league coaches wrong. In the league's preseason poll, Grambling was picked to finish third in the West division behind Southern and Prairie View.

“We just use last year as motivation,” senior wide receiver Quintin Guice said. “We know that 6-5 is not what we’re used to. We’re disappointed in ourselves, and we let the fans down. That’s added motivation for this year.”

Motivation won’t be a problem when Grambling faces rival Southern in the Bayou Classic or Prairie View, which is coached by former Tigers’ offensive coordinator Eric Dooley. The Panthers ended Grambling’s 26-game SWAC winning streak with a 22-16 win last year at the State Fair Classic in Dallas.

Offensively, the Tigers return junior quarterback Geremy Hickbottom, who started the last seven games of 2018. Hickbottom and sophomore Aldon Clark split in the first four games, but Hickbottom surged ahead after throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for three more in a 62-7 win over Oklahoma Panhandle State.

Three of Grambling’s top receivers from last season return including Devante Davis (414 yards, 3 TDs), Guice (357 yards, 3 TDs), and Darrell Clark (232 yards, 2 TDs).

“He has really good size and he’s extremely intelligent,” Fobbs said of Davis, who is 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. “We think he has all the tools in order to be a dynamic football player.”

Hickbottom completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,945 yards with 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He was also the team’s leading rusher with 123 carries for 500 yards and eight touchdowns.

Lyndemian Brooks, listed as a wide receiver, is the team’s next best returning rusher with 61 carries for 339 yards and two touchdowns.

Defensively, Grambling has plenty to build on. Among the returning players, three players earned spots on the preseason all-SWAC team — defensive back Joseph McWilliams and lineman Anfernee Mullins (first-team selections), and defensive back Danquarian Fields (second team).

The Tigers limited opponents to a 33 percent success rate on third downs in 2018. They also had 34 sacks, and forced 29 turnovers. Included in the turnover total were 14 interceptions, which tied Alcorn for first in the SWAC.

“We’ve got to get back to Grambling football,” Guice said. “Some of the guys on the team have played for the national championship so we know what it takes.”