The 2008 College of William and Mary football team was inches away from the FCS playoffs, its season ending after a dramatic 23-20 overtime defeat to the eventual national champion University of Richmond in the year’s final game.
Entering the 2009 season, that squad returns 15 of 22 starters from a team that finished the season ranked no. 20 in the country. The Tribe saw nine All-CAA performers take the field for its 2009 spring game and that roster now includes five players tabbed as preseason All-Americans by the College Sporting News, the sixth most of any team in the country.
Accordingly, when the 2009 preseason polls were announced, the College had gained the respect of the college football media, placing from 11th to 16th nationally in most major rankings.
However, when the CAA coaches predicted the league’s order of finish in late July, these factors were only good enough to earn the College a predicted fifth place finish.
Such is life in the brutal CAA South division.
Despite assembling some of the best talent in the FCS, Head Coach Jimmye Layock will have to contend with the likes of no. 1 Richmond, no. 3 Villanova University, no. 10 James Madison University and a resurgent University of Delaware program merely to survive his own division.
“You can pick anyone, anywhere; everyone’s tough,” Laycock said. “Richmond returns most of their players, JMU’s tough, Delaware has some good transfers and Villanova’s a top team. They’re all good, so we’d better be ready to play.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoops agreed.
“You come out of the CAA South alive, and you have done something,” he said. “For our level of football, it’s similar to what the SEC is to the Division 1A level.”
Of the Tribe’s 11-game 2009 slate, four opponents are currently ranked in the top 10 nationally (CAA North foe, University New Hampshire is ranked eighth). Factoring in the season opening game against ACC-program University of Virginia and a Parent’s Weekend contest against a very strong Delaware program, six of the College’s 11 games will be contested against playoff-caliber opponents.
It’s a challenge that the College is both prepared and excited for.
“It’s real tough, but it’s just motivation,” senior safety David Caldwell said. “We all want to play against the highest level, and we feel like we’re at the highest level in 1-AA. You couldn’t ask for more.”
If the competition isn’t motivation enough, the Tribe has a Nov. 21 road matchup against Richmond to cap the season in a rematch of the dramatic 23-20 overtime loss which ended the College’s 2008 campaign. The defeat knocked the Tribe out of lock playoff status, leaving the squad’s fate to the FCS selection committee.
After that body left the Tribe out of the 16-team FCS postseason last year, the College has one clear goal for 2009.
“We took the national champions to overtime. We felt that if a couple balls bounced different ways, we could have won that game,” Caldwell said. “But that’s just football. We want to control our destiny this year. We don’t want to be waiting on selection Sunday for the selection committee.”
After posting 32.8 points per game last season, the Tribe offense will attempt to continue that level of production behind a new quarterback and reconstituted offensive line. It will be a tall order in a CAA South division which features four of the top-five defenses from a year ago.
Senior R.J. Archer takes over under center for departed All-CAA quarterback Jake Phillips after spending last season as the backup.
“He’s had some days that weren’t as good as others; we’ve taken it slower with him [this fall], but other than that, he’s looked very good,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “Hopefully, as he settles down and gets some confidence with himself and the game plan down, I look for him to do very well.”
Archer will have assistance from a dynamic running attack featuring sophomore CAA Rookie of the Year Jonathan Grimes and juniors Courtland Marriner and Terrence Riggins. Grimes will look to reprise his breakout freshman season in which he racked up 1,262 yards and 9 touchdowns rushing and receiving. However, he will have to deal with the increased focus from opponents that comes with those numbers. Marriner and Riggins should be instrumental in relieving the load after injury-plagued 2008 campaigns.
The play of a young offensive line will be key as sophomore James Pagliaro and junior Derek Toon slide into new positions.
After converting from wide receiver and spending his junior year as a backup, senior R.J. Archer will feature under center. It’s his first year starting, but he’s no newcomer, throwing for 307 yards in a start against Villanova.
After last year’s breakthrough campaign from sophomore Jonathan Grimes, running back is unquestionably the deepest and most talented unit on the offense. Grimes will attempt to follow his 948 yards rushing from last season while teaming with juniors Terrence Riggins and Courtland Marriner to create a versatile attack. Look for Marriner to factor into the passing game while Riggins, who slimmed down in the offseason to increase durability, picks up the tough yardage inside.
The departures of center Luke Hiteshew and guard Michael Grant leave the offensive line short on experience. Senior C.J. Muse and junior Keith Hill lead a unit which will be a key factor in the offense’s success — new center sophomore James Pagliaro and guard junior Derek Toon will need to mature quickly.
Senior D.J. McAulay (718 yards receiving last year) and junior Chase Hill (438 yards) will be the main targets for senior quarterback R.J. Archer, but expect the Tribe pass catchers to miss the steadying presence of the graduated Elliott Mack. Juniors Terreon Conyers and Cam Dohse also have game experience, but keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Ryan Moody, who posted strong performances in practice throughout the spring and summer. Overall, Archer should have ample receivers with which to work, but the Tribe lacks a surehanded standout.
Senior Rob Varno enters his second season as the starter after a solid year in which he posted 36 catches for 397 yards. He was also a favorite target of senior quarterback R.J. Archer in Archer’s lone start last year, hauling in 6 balls for 58 yards against Villanova.
Expect to see senior defensive end Adrian Tracy leading convoys of linemen into opponents’ backfields on a regular basis this season. All four starters from last year’s defensive line return, highlighted by Tracy, who enters the year as an All-American candidate. The unit’s speed, depth and athletic potency make it feared throughout the CAA.
While the front four looms large, the rest of the defensive is not as solidified. The secondary has to formulate a scheme to replace third round NFL draft pick Derek Cox ’09. Senior safety David Caldwell will shoulder leadership responsibilities and will look to repeat as the Tribe’s leader in tackles for the third straight year.
“We always go out there thinking we’re the best secondary in the country,” Caldwell said. “We feel like we’ve worked hard enough, and we have a lot of talent back there, so we’re looking forward to it.”
The linebackers set up to be the least-experienced unit on defense. Two three-year starters graduated this spring, which forces sophomore Jake Trantin to take the control in the middle. Trantin led all CAA freshmen with 6.9 tackles per game last season.
Sophomore Jake Trantin captains a unit which lost two seniors to graduation this offseason. After stepping in for an injured Josh Rutter midway through last year, Trantin finished second on the team with 76 tackles and an interception. He will be joined by juniors Wes Steinman and Evan Francks at the outside linebacker slots.
The Tribe cornerbacks are a deep unit which lacks a standout performer. Juniors Ben Cottingham and Terrell Wells will start, but senior Fred Johnson and redshirt freshman B.W. Webb should see playing time as well. Senior David Caldwell is a playmaker at safety after posting 78 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 return touchdowns last season. Senior Robert Livingston will start at free safety.
The Tribe defensive line was one of the best in the conference last season. This year, after returning all four starters, they should be even better. Senior and preseason All-American Adrian Tracy had 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss in 2008, while fellow end and classmate C.J. Herbert notched 2 sacks and 23 tackles in support. Senior tackle Sean Lissemore might be the most underrated player on the team, while junior Mike Stover starts next to him.
Senior kicker Brian Pate was named first team All-CAA after a rock steady 2008 season in which he went 13-16 on field goals. Junior punter David Miller averaged 41.53 yards per punt. Sophomore Jonathan Grimes was an All-American kick returner after posting 24.5 yards per return and a touchdown. Senior safety David Caldwell is likely to return punts.
Sept. 5 at Virginia
The Cavaliers might be in disarray coming off a 5-7 season, but fans of both teams will no doubt be up for this in-state rivalry.
Sept. 12 vs. Central Connecticut State
The Blue Devils posted a strong 7-4 mark a year ago and were picked to finish third in the Northeastern Conference.
Sept. 19 at Norfolk State
Last year, the Tribe destroyed the Spartans 42-12 in a surprisingly easy home win.
Sept. 26 vs. DELAWARE
The College ran over the Blue Hens 27-3 in Newark last year as Delaware finished the season with a rare losing record (3-8). Having reloaded behind Penn. State transfer quarterback Pat Devlin, expect the Blue Hens to be geared up for revenge.
Oct. 3 at Villanova
The Tribe fell behind 35-7 at halftime of this matchup in 2008 and couldn’t recover, losing 38-28.
Oct. 10 at Northeastern
The Huskies fell 38-17 at Zable last year as the College picked up a key late-season win. Head Coach Rocky Hager’s teams are always physical, and Northeastern will be a tough road game.
Oct. 24 vs. JAMES MADISON
Last season, the College swept into Harrisonburg riding a five-game win streak and promptly fell back to earth, losing 48-28. JMU quarterback Rodney Landers, who racked up 357 total yards in that game, graduated, and expect the Tribe to fare better this year at home.
Oct. 31 at Rhode Island
The Rams managed one CAA win in 2008. Don’t expect them to do much better in 2009.
Nov. 7 vs. TOWSON
Towson went 3-9 last year and lost to the Tribe 34-14. This will be a must-win for the College before finishing with two tough games.
Nov. 14 vs. NEW HAMPSHIRE
In the 2008 game of the year, the Tribe won 38-34 on a D.J. MacAulay touchdown with 22 seconds to play.
Nov. 22 at Richmond
This game was a virtual play-in game for the playoffs in 2008, and this season might prove to be no different. If the Spiders and Tribe go at it again for a postseason berth, expect the atmosphere to be electric in downtown Richmond.