Ask any William and Mary player or coach about the success of the program’s top-ranked defense this season and odds are you’ll hear some variation of the phrase, “It all starts up front.”
This year’s Tribe defense has been one of the greatest in the history of the College, and there is little doubt about the group responsible.
“No question, it starts with the guys up front,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “I think the players have gotten better. They haven’t just gotten older, they’ve gotten better.”
Those “guys up front” would be a vaunted defensive line comprised of three four-year starters. Defensive ends Adrian Tracy and C.J. Herbert and defensive tackle Sean Lissemore have played nearly every game since their redshirt freshman seasons in 2006. That year, the Tribe allowed 187.2 yards per game on the ground.
Three years later, that trio makes up the heart of what might be the stiffest defensive front in the FCS, allowing only 61.6 yards rushing. The Tribe ranks at the top of the CAA in total defense and leads the league with 30 sacks.
The defensive line is leading the way for a squad that lost several key playmakers to graduation last spring.
“They’re playing so well, they’re making it easy for the rest of us,” senior safety David Caldwell said. “We can just worry about the passing game and not be concerned about the run.”
Tracy, a legitimate NFL prospect, has garnered the majority of the headlines, being named the conference’s Preseason Defensive Co-Player of the Year and ranking second in the league with eight sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
But the unit has exhibited impressive depth that goes far beyond its senior All-American.
Lissemore lacks the quantitative statistics measured by fans, but received rave reviews from James Madison Head Coach Mickey Matthews earlier this year after racking up eight tackles, two for loss, against the Dukes.
“There’s not a coach in this league who does not know who Sean Lissemore is,” Laycock said. “He’s an outstanding defensive lineman.”
And that depth goes well beyond the starting four.
“We have guys coming off the bench that would start for almost any other team,” Caldwell said.
Seven different linemen have recorded sacks for the Tribe this season, including sophomore backups Ravi Pradhanang and Marcus Hyde. The pair are tied for third on the squad with 3.5 sacks each, despite their limited minutes.
“It’s a great testament to those guys who work hard and are very talented,” Herbert said. “We’ve had an eight-man rotation the last few games. It’s been great. It keeps everyone healthy and allows us to really give our best.”
That depth has kept the entire group well rested and strongly conditioned late into the season.
Last year, the Tribe yielded 317 rushing yards in its second to last game of the season against James Madison after losing Herbert to injury in the third quarter.
This year, they say they’re fresher.
“We’re veterans, especially the seniors,” Tracy said. “We’ve pretty much played since our redshirt freshman year, so we know what to expect and how to govern our bodies accordingly. And with our depth, you don’t see a significant drop-off [when the starters are out].”
That has the Tribe well positioned for a stretch run that contains matchups against no. 8 New Hampshire and no. 1 Richmond in the regular season’s final two games.
There’s only one problem.
“They’re taking all the tackles,” Caldwell said. “But it’s fun.”