BTP: The Tribe finished 9-4 last season, and although the season ended with a loss in the FCS playoffs, it sounds like the momentum from last year has generated a lot of hype headed into the 2016 season. What kind of season do you expect W&M to have?
WMSB: The Tribe made its way to the second round of the FCS playoffs last year, a big accomplishment for a team that hadn't qualified for the playoffs in quite some time. However, by the second week of the FCS playoffs, W&M had already played 12 straight games without rest. This was a direct result of the team's incredibly early BYE week, which came in week 2 to be exact; this certainly hurt the team down the stretch. But no excuses, W&M found themselves outmatched against a strong Richmond squad on the road, and ended the year with a more than respectable 9-win season. This year, W&M's BYE week falls toward the end of the season, which should provide the Tribe with much needed rest in preparation for what will hopefully be yet another playoff run (as we predict). This season, William & Mary is ranked in the top-10 in all FCS preseason polls, most notably sitting at 10th in the FCS Coaches Poll and 9th in the FCS Stats Poll. Add W&M's newly renovated Zable stadium into the fold, and you can see why there is a lot of hype surrounding this team going into the 2016 season.
In our season preview article, we picked the Tribe to finish the year 9-2, which would be an improvement over last year's 8-3 regular season mark. With that record, we believe the Tribe would receive a BYE in the first round of the FCS playoffs and host a second round game in Williamsburg. Anything can happen in the postseason. But while we recognize that injuries can change the entire season, we also know that this Tribe team is battle-tested, experienced, hungry, and poised for a deep playoff run. If the offense lives up to its potential, and if the defense plays as well as it did last season (where opposing teams averaged just 22.7 points per game), this squad has the potential to make it deep into the playoffs. Like we mentioned above, once the postseason starts, anything can happen; but we trust this squad, and believe that William and Mary fans might be treated to a team for the ages this year.
BTP: I really enjoyed your piece on W&M's head coach Jimmye Laycock, and in particular the story about how he nearly left for Boston College but couldn't leave his beloved alma mater. It's not often you see coaches stay at the same place for that long! What has he meant to you during his time at W&M?
WMSB: To put it frankly, W&M's head coach means a whole lot to this program, and to this school in general. Walk on campus, and everyone knows who he is. Even the W&M nerds who have never attended a football game know who he is (shame on them). There was an entire $11 million dollar football facility created in his name--while he still coaches, mind you. Comparing his coaching tenure with any one of the all-time greats, Laycock has spent more time at W&M (36 years) than all other major FBS coaches at their respective schools, bar one -- Joe Paterno, who served 46 years as Penn State's head coach. To put this into perspective, FSU's Bobby Bowden coached the Seminoles for 34 years, Frank Beamer at Tech for 29 years, and Bear Bryant at Alabama for 25 years.
Over the past 36 seasons, Coach has amassed 240 wins, 24 winning seasons, 12 post-season appearances, and 6 conference championships. An astounding accomplishment, to say the least. Perhaps most impressive to us, is that Laycock has accomplished all of this at a school so academically focused, that multiple student-athletes are turned away each year because their GPAs and/or SAT scores are not up to par. When you factor in recruiting restraints due to stringent academic requirements, both to get in the school and to survive tough courses at W&M, Laycock's feats prove doubly impressive. It's safe to say that this year's Home Opener will be something special for Laycock. Zable Stadium has been completely renovated, including a brand new upper deck seating section. None of this would have been possible without Laycock's sustained success in Williamsburg over the past three and a half decades. Going into his 37th season, we at the W&M Sports Blog believe Coach has more than enough left in the tank to get to his 40th season, and we look forward to following him on the ride.
BTP: What sorts of areas are the Tribe looking to improve upon from last season?
WMSB: The Tribe is definitely looking to improve upon its offense from last season. While last year's unit was productive (averaging 30.9 points per game), this year's Green and Gold offense looks like it'll be even better. Headlined by 3-year starter and captain QB Steve Cluley, the best RB in the conference and one of the best in the FCS in Kendell Anderson, a deep, experienced offensive line, fast and shifty WRs (including a transfer from the University South Carolina), and a preseason 1st team all-conference TE in Andrew Caskin, this unit has the potential to be one of the best ever in Williamsburg. And that's not hyperbole. Not to be forgotten, the unit also includes returning All-American kicker Nick Dorka, who can convert field goals up to 50+ yards in crunch time. Truly one of the best legs in the FCS. Barring injury, we believe this year’s offense has the potential to put up numbers similar to last year's high powered FCS offenses, such as Sam Houston State (41.1 ppg) and JMU (44.3 ppg).
On the other side of the ball, question marks remain. The defense will look to rebuild after losing key pieces to graduation, including two players currently on active NFL rosters in S DeAndre Houston-Carson (Chicago Bears) and MLB Luke Rhodes (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Unfortunately, the Tribe lost all three starting linebackers from a season ago, including the previously mentioned 2-year captain Luke Rhodes. This came in addition to losing all-conference safety DeAndre Houston-Carson on the back end. With that being said, this year's defensive unit includes young players who are looking to step up and make a name for themselves. Aside from Houston-Carson, all of the starters in the secondary are back, including all cornerbacks. This team also has a solid amount of depth across the defensive line, spearheaded by senior captain defensive end Peyton Gryder (10 TFL, 5 sacks last year) and a 300-pound behemoth defensive tackle in Isaiah Stephens. Any way you slice it, this unit will need to perform as well or better than it did last season if William and Mary has aspirations of making a deep playoff run.
BTP: In order to better last year's record and potentially move further in the FCS playoffs, who on the Tribe's roster do you see as being the most important player to continue that success?
WMSB: If we had to pick a single player to answer this question, it would have to be the Tribe's starting quarterback, Steve Cluley. Cluley enters his senior year as the unquestioned third-year starter out from center. Immediately prior to Cluley's sophomore year, W&M's quarterback play had been something to forget. Unlike Laycock-led offenses of the past, which consisted of strong, consistent play from the QB position the 2011-2014 years were perhaps something to forget (Laycock was a QB himself, and has always been known for his offensive mind). Enter Steve Cluley. With Cluley came consistency; as the years have gone on, and as Cluley's experience has grown, offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers (who was Brett Favre's QB Coach with the Vikings) has been able to really open things up in the passing game. Known for his strong arm, deep-throw prowess, and ability to scramble when things get tough, Cluley has developed into the strong W&M quarterback that the Tribe has always been known for. And the offense has been reaping the benefits.
During his sophomore season, his first as starter, Cluley finished the year with 2048 passing yards, 11 TDs, and just 4 interceptions, on top of 85 rushing yards and two touchdowns. While he certainly didn't light up the stat sheet each and every week, his strong 11:4 TD:INT ratio kept the Tribe in games and in contention for a playoff spot the whole season. Last year, in what was his junior season, expectations were high. Cluley would go on to finish the year with 2768 passing yards, 16 TD, and 10 interceptions, while also rushing for 97 yards and 3 touchdowns. Coach Rogers really let Cluley show what he can do last season, opening up the playbook, and moving the offense to an all-out spread attack. But while Cluley passed for 700 more yards and 5 TDs more than he did in his sophomore year, we would like to see him cut back on his interception total. Pertaining to your question, if Cluley can cut back on these turnovers, while increasing his TD total to 20+, the Tribe might be in for a monster year. Complimented by preseason all-conference selections RB Kendell Anderson, OL Jerry Ugokwe, TE Andrew Caskin, and an incredibly strong receiving corps which includes speedster DeVonte Dedmon (who roasted UVA last year) and South Carolina transfer Jalen Christian, this unit looks deadly, and should keep the Tribe in games this season. Wolfpack look out, the Tribe offense is no pushover, and should test the limits of the NC State defense come September 1st.
BTP: Who on the Wolfpack's roster gives you the most concern heading into the Thursday night matchup?
WMSB: Matthew Dayes. As NC State fans are well aware, Dayes was on pace for an insane 1400 yards and 19 touchdowns last season before going down with an injury. He has played consistently since freshman year, which has to be a rarity in a place like NC State that constantly churns out solid running backs. Outside of Dayes, first team All-ACC selection TE/FB Jaylen Samuels gives us cause for concern. Samuels appears to be the most versatile player on the Wolfpack offense, and one of the best players in the ACC. He can truly do it all, both as a receiver and a rusher. If the Tribe is to have any chance in this one, the W&M linebackers will have to step up and play a huge role in stopping these two. With a duo of superstars like Dayes and Samuels, the best the Tribe can do is hope to contain them and force the NC State offense to kick field goals. If William and Mary can keep one of either Samuels or Dayes from going off, then the Tribe will stand a chance. Easier said than done.
BTP: Any predictions for the outcome of the game?
WMSB: In recent season openers, dating all the way back to 2009, William & Mary has given just about every FBS team it has faced a run for its money. So much so, that we wrote an article about it. Last year, UVA narrowly escaped defeat at the hands of the Tribe, its "in-state rival" (okay, that's a bit of a stretch, but certainly its academic rival), by a score of 35-29. Three seasons ago, in 2013, the Tribe led WVU in their house 17-7 at the half, before falling in a heartbreaker 24-17. In 2012, the Green and Gold walked into Maryland and again took a lead into half, this time up 6-0. W&M forced 3 interceptions in the contest, but would ultimately fall 7-6 at Maryland. An old-school defensive showing, no doubt. In 2010, W&M marched into Chapel Hill (NC State fans will appreciate this), garnering another 17-7 halftime lead, before ultimately falling 21-17 to the Tar Heels. And in 2009, W&M defeated UVA 26-14 in Charlottesville, scoring bragging rights for years to come against our FBS in-state rivals.
Get the picture? If there's one thing FBS teams have come to learn about W&M football, its that Jimmye Laycock is no pushover. He prepares his teams for big FBS games like no other, strategizing around his team's strengths and capitalizing on the weaknesses of his FBS opponents. An interesting side note is that, in just about every close contest mentioned above, the FBS team W&M played was experiencing a quarterback change to start the season. From what we hear, NC State is in that same boat, and Laycock truly does know how to take advantage of a young quarterback. Offensive play-caller, beware.
We at the W&M Sports Blog wholeheartedly believe that this year's team rivals that of the 2009 squad that knocked out UVA. The 2009 team, led by senior QB RJ Archer and a high-octane offense, put up 300+ yards and forced an astounding 7 turnovers en route to the upset. Similarly, this year's offense, now led by senior QB Steve Cluley, is equally dangerous. Potentially more so. If this unit gets going offensively, the sky's the limit. Much will be expected from the Tribe's defense, which is expected to be poorer than years' past, but if the defense can force a couple turnovers and hold the Wolfpack to field goals rather than touchdowns, this game might come down the wire. In honor of last season's near-upset, we'll make our prediction: Tribe 27 Wolfpack 20. Because we're delusional and believe we stand a chance. Just ask Maryland, WVU, and UVA. Don't take the Tribe lightly. Roll Tribe.