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William & Mary’s defense has a lot to prove and a lot to replace

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Not an ideal combo.

NCAA Football: William & Mary at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Offense is not going to be the problem for William & Mary this season—there’s too much returning experience from a unit that averaged 6.1 yards per play in 2015 for the Tribe to struggle scoring points.

Defense is another story entirely. The Tribe lost a lot of major contributors, including multiple first-team All-CAA players, on the defensive side. They are likely to be perilously young in a few different spots. And this was not a group that was particularly good in 2015; they allowed 5.3 yards per play on the season, which is decent but hardly ideal.

They had their share of off days: 41 points and 6.2 yards per play surrendered to James Madison, 49 points and 6.8 YPP allowed to Duquesne, 48 points and 5.9 YPP allowed to Richmond. The Tribe won two of those three games, which gives you an idea how good their offense can be, but they lost the Richmond game, which was in the FCS playoffs.

The offense probably will have to cover for the defense a time or three in 2016 as well.

W&M overview, defense edition

Defensive line: The Tribe are in the best shape here, where three starters return. They lost first-team All-CAA defensive tackle Tyler Claytor, who had 4.5 sacks and nine TFLs in 2015. Defensive end Peyton Gryder (6-3, 255) figures to be the standout within this unit; the senior led W&M in both sacks (five) and TFLs (10) last season.

Junior DE Matt Ahola (6-2, 260) and junior DT Isaiah Stephens (6-2, 300) are also back and should be solid. Gryder, Ahola, and Stephens combined for 37 starts last season. They are going to need to be good, because behind them we quickly get into “Not great, Bob!” territory.

Linebacker: Two starters are gone, including one of the proverbial “heart and soul” types in Luke Rhodes. Rhodes was a starter in all four of his seasons in Williamsburg and ranks fifth in school history with 341 tackles. He was a first-team All-CAA player three times, and was a team captain for two seasons. You can put a football player—a talented one, even!—at his position, but it’s not really a guy you replace.

The Tribe also need to replace Zack Fetters, who was third on the team with 60 tackles last year. Rhodes was second with 78.

Marcus Harvey (6-2, 210) and Stephen Lubnow (6-0, 220) are a couple of the guys who’ll need to step up. Lubnow recorded 52 tackles in 2015.

Secondary: The Tribe’s leading tackler last season was safety DeAndre Houston-Carson, who finished with 109 stops. The four-year starter was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. The Tribe also lost safety Jared Velasquez, a three-year starter. And one of the guys penciled in as a starting corner missed almost all of last year because of injury.

That leaves, well ... a whole heap of worries. But Trey Reed (5-8, 160) will not be one of them. Despite his lack of size, he finished 2015 fourth on the team with 59 tackles, and he picked off three passes as well. I’ve never seen him play and I already like him.

There isn’t much size on the roster here, whether we’re talking about corner or safety. That could prove a long-term problem, though NC State isn’t in the greatest position to leverage it.

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State’s offense should be able to put up plenty of points on W&M’s defense, unless the new quarterbacks are reeeaaally struggling. Which is always a possibility. Though if it happens against this back seven, we should start to worry about how this year’s gonna go.