Soon, so tantalizingly soon, we will have actual football to talk about. We'll be able to move beyond previews and hype videos and emoji-based top 25 rankings, and instead focus on testing the limits of how much football can be consumed in one sitting. But there are at least a few more hours left until then (unless you're a Utah or Arizona fan), which means you have time to squeeze in one more preview before the fun truly begins.
Fun, that is, unless you're one of the guys whose name is about to appear in this article. If you do see your name in the next few paragraphs, chances are you're a starter or likely contributor on the Grambling State defense. If so, you've heard about Jared Goff and Daniel Lasco and something called a "Bear Raid." You've heard about Cal's elite offense, and you've heard about a 43.5 point betting line. But we haven't heard much about you yet. So let's meet the Grambling State Tigers defense.
LiffeyBear wrote an excellent piece on the Tigers' funky variation on the 3-3-5 that they'll use to try and trip up the Cal offense, so make sure to read that as well for a more technical breakdown.
Names to Know: SR Michael Jolivet, SR Jevonta Williams, SR Larry Stalling, SR Jamison Goins, JR Donovan McCray
Graduation was not kind to the Grambling State defense, taking away four of its five leading tacklers and its interceptions leader. This defensive line, however, is still a veteran unit. All three starting linemen return, and the five players listed above combined for 16 of the Tigers' 45 sacks last season, the highest total in the SWAC. Grambling's 3-3-5 is an aggressive defensive system that slows down spread offenses by blitzing from a variety of looks, meaning Jared Goff could spend much of his Saturday on the move. These guys could provide Cal's younger offensive linemen with a great early challenge, provided the first stringers can spot them a comfortable lead.
Names to Know: JR Arkez Cooper, SR Henry Taylor, SR Derwin Butler, SR Troy Roach
Having some upperclassmen here will soften the blow of this offseason's losses, namely Aaron Breed and Steve Orisakwe, two guys who provided the Tigers with 16.5 sacks and 44 tackles for loss last season. None of these guys got close to that type of production though, so this unit's continued ability to disrupt the offense is an open question for now. Henry Taylor is listed as a guy who had a big offseason, so here's hoping he takes this weekend nice and easy.
Names to Know: JR Guy Stallworth, SR Nicholas Peoples, SR Mike Roach
Here's where Grambling's inexperience is exposed. Only three starters return in the entire secondary, forcing coach Broderick Fobbs to bring in a handful of transfers to fill out his squad. Peoples is the most productive of the returners, contributing 64 tackles and two picks last season. Guy Stallworth, who comes to Grambling from Southwest Mississippi should be an instant contributor at safety, along with transfers Deon Bonner and Abu Conteh. The Tigers play a lot of man defense, which would seem to be the Bears' big advantage on offense. If Jared Goff gets enough time in the pocket, our receiving corps' strength and blocking ability should create a lot of positive matchups in the secondary. I would anticipate some open space downfield for our running backs as well if they can evade the crashing linebackers.
Again, it's just a few hours now until we'll have real, relevant numbers to pore over, but in the meantime we're stuck with old stats. And they're not exceptionally pretty for the Grambling defense. They allowed 32.2 points and 435 yards per game (for comparison, Cal gave up a cringe-inducing 39.8 points and 477 yards). Elsewhere in "hey, that sounds familiar," offenses torched the secondary to the tune of 266 passing yards per game, making them the 13th worst passing defense in FCS football. At the same time, Grambling led the FCS in both sacks and tackles for loss. It's get to the ball in the backfield or die for these guys, and last year mostly fell under the latter category.
I'm by no means the great defensive mind of my generation. When I play NCAA 14, I blitz all of my linebackers every play and either get a dozen sacks or give up 60 points and...whoa, I think I just understood Grambling's defensive strategy. Of course, it's more complex than that (and again, read LiffeyBear's posts for earlier this week for an explanation), but the outcome is pretty much the same. I think Cal's offense will have enough of a talent advantage to carry them to a comfortable victory in this one, but I could definitely see the Tigers' style of play causing some hiccups.
I'll be back next week with what I promise will be a more detailed look at the San Diego State defense. Until then, good riddance to the offseason and Go Bears!