For many, the task of winning an NCAA Championship is analogous to solving a jigsaw puzzle: there are hundreds of pieces, all of which must somehow fall perfectly into place to produce the desired picture.
Last year, the Tribe felt it had all the pieces necessary to bring home the team’s first NCAA Championship trophy. With a seasoned quarterback behind center, two NFL-caliber defensive lineman and dozens of talented role players, the outline of the final picture was clear from the beginning.
A 26-14 drubbing of FBS foe Virginia formed a big piece of the season, as did a playoff-clinching win at home versus New Hampshire. When the College beat Southern Illinois 24-3 in the NCAA Quarterfinals, it seemed the final product was right at hand. But a 14-13 loss to Villanova in the NCAA Semifinals ended the Tribe’s season, and the last section of the puzzle was left unfinished.
This year the College will again attempt to solve the same puzzle, albeit with many new pieces. While the Tribe has retained some key players from last year’s team, others graduated, leaving Head Coach Jimmye Laycock with the task of putting together a team that can contend for a championship.
“We’ve had some outstanding teams over the years, with a little lull a few years ago,” Laycock said. “But [this year], I think we have pretty good team speed, which is an area we need, and we have made some strong strides defensively, and we have a good kicker, which is what we wanted to have.”
Laycock took the first step toward rebuilding a contender when he announced his starting quarterback, senior Mike Callahan, Monday. Callahan, a fifth-year player, missed all of last season due to a knee injury, but the senior had the strongest command of the offense during fall practice.
Callahan’s hopes for success will likely be tied to the performance of the Tribe backfield, led by junior Jonathan Grimes and seniors Courtland Marriner and Terrence Riggins. Grimes was recently named to the Walter Payton Award Watch List, given each year to FCS football’s best player, and Marriner and Riggins both return after solid 2009 seasons.
“I think Jon Grimes [is] an outstanding back,” Laycock said. “Courtland is a different kind of back, so far as his size and speed, and Terrence is a different kind of back with his size and strength, so I think they all complement each other.”
Defensively, the College will watch the development of a young and inexperienced group of linemen, while sophomore Brian Thompson and junior Terrell Wells take the helm as safeties.
While the College has experience at cornerback this year, with sophomore CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year B.W. Webb returning alongside senior Ben Cottingham, the Tribe’s greatest defensive strength lies in its linebacking core. Seniors Wes Steinman and Evan Francks will combine with preseason All- American junior Jake Trantin to make up one of the most intimidating units in the conference.
Laycock hopes that his team will enter the fall with the right pieces to compete once again for a national championship. The only question remaining: can the Tribe complete the puzzle?
“If you look at the preseason rankings this year, or the post-season rankings last year, and the number of teams in our league who are national-caliber teams,” Laycock said. “It’s something that I think everyone has become very much aware of. If you play in our conference, you better be ready to play your very, very best.”
–Sports Editor Mike Barnes
Head Coach Jimmye Laycock
When the College takes the field against Massachusetts on Saturday, it will mark the beginning of Head Coach Jimmye Laycock’s 31st season at the helm of the Tribe. Since Laycock, a 1970 graduate of the College, returned to Williamsburg in 1980 to coach his alma mater, he has become one of the most successful coaches in the 115 year history of the program. Laycock has recorded a school-record 200 wins, 20 winning seasons and 12 playoff apperances over the course of his tenure. While his body of work is impressive, Laycock has seemingly gotten better as time has gone on, as he has piloted the Tribe to the NCAA FCS Naitonal Semifinal game twice in the past six years.
During his playing career at the College, Laycock played quarterback under two legendary college coaches in Lou Holtz and Marv Levy. After graduating in 1970, Laycock undertook various assistant roles at Newport News High School, The Citadel, Memphis State and Clemson before returning to the College. He is scheduled to be inducted in to the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame in October 2010.
Senior defensive tackle Mike Stover leads a defensive line that while not as heralded as last year’s quartet, comes into the fall with plenty of game reps. Stover and junior tackle Harold Robertson will with start on the inside. Stover, who recorded 5.5 sacks last year, and Robertson, who was mainly used as a run stuffer, will be expected to collapse the pocket up the middle ,in addition to providing run support. Junior Ravi Pradhanang, who recorded 3.5 sacks last year, is the College’s best technical pass rusher, and will provide pressure off the edge, while fellow junior Marcus Hyde will start at the other defensive end position. Hyde recorded 4.5 sacks last season, is perhaps the Tribe’s quickest pass rusher, although he must improve against the run.
Backing up the starting unit will be seniors Kyle O’Brien and Bryan Jean-Pierre. O’Brien is versatile enough to backup either the tackle or end position, while Jean-Pierre could be a breakout star this fall if he can capitalize on his enormous potential and athleticism.
The linebacking corps is the most experienced unit on the Tribe heading into the season. Junior middle linebacker Jake Trantin is a preseason All-American candidate after leading the College with 90 tackles last season. Trantin is physical and plays sideline to sideline, although frequently he’ll have to take on offensive linemen more this season thanks to the graduation of a couple key members of the defensive line.
Trantin will be flanked on the outside by seniors Evan Francks and Wes Steinman. Francks has started 22 games in his career and brings a depth of experience and intelligence to the outside linebacking position to make up for his relative lack of size and athleticism. On the other side of the spectrum, Steinman is one of the best athletes on the Tribe defense. After an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, Steinman made 13 starts last season and recorded 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks. With a new defensive line in front of him, Steinman will be asked to bring more pressure from the outside this season.
Sophomore B.W. Webb had maybe the best debut in the country last season, as he picked off three passes in his first collegiate game versus Virginia last year, returning one of those interceptions for a touchdown. With the graduation of last year’s defensive line, it becomes all the more important that Webb be a shutdown corner for the Tribe.
Beside Webb will be senior cornerback Ben Cottingham. What he lacks in size and speed, Cottingham makes up for in intelligence and desire on the outside.
Junior Terrell Wells will open the season at the free safety position, after being converted from the cornerback position during spring and fall practice. A decent athlete with a nose for the ball, Wells must show he understands the defense from the backline of the secondary in order to support the cornerbacks and linebackers in pass coverage.
Sophomore Brian Thompson enters the fall as the starter at strong safety. After playing mostly on special teams last season, Thompson will be asked to be a physical presence at the line of scrimmage, both in the run game and in the Tribe’s blitz packages.
Junior Jonathan Grimes will be the primary ball carrier this fall, after leading the CAA in rushing last season. In 2009, Grimes set a single-season record with 277 carries, and put up the third-highest single-season rushing total in school history by running for 1,294 yards. Look for the preseason All-American candidate to be split out wide and featured more prominently in the passing game, as Coach Jimmye Laycock and his staff look to create open space behind an inexperienced offensive line.
Seniors Courtland Marriner and Terrence Riggins return to the backfield behind Grimes. Riggins’s physical 6’1”, 224-lb. frame make him an option in short-yardage situations and, occasionally, as a fullback. Out of all three running backs, Marriner might possess the best breakaway speed. An increased role for Grimes and the graduation of a couple of the Tribe’s top receivers could lead to an increased amount of playing time for Marriner, especially in the passing game.
Senior Jimmy Hobson appears on the backfield depth chart as fullbacks. With the talent in the Tribe’s backfield and Laycock’s pass-happy offense, expect the best blocking back to receive the most playing time, and even then mostly in short yardage or goal line situations.
Head Coach Jimmye Laycock made news Monday with his selection of senior Mike Callahan as his starting quarterback. Callahan showed a strong arm in the Tribe’s preseason scrimmage, connecting on a couple of deep routes for big gains. A good athlete with the size and speed to create something out of nothing with his legs, Callahan needs to work on his pocket awareness, especially behind a young offensive line. When he is rushed, Callahan has the tendency to throw off his front foot and rush his mechanics.
Perhaps the favorite to win the starting job coming into the spring, junior Mike Paulus enters the year as the backup to Callahan, along with redshirt freshman Brent Caprio. The New York Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school, Paulus showed an accurate arm at times in the preseason, but struggled with making all of the plays and fully picking up the College’s offense at times. Behind Paulus on the depth chart is Caprio. A dual-threat quarterback who scored almost as many rushing touchdowns (42) as passing touchdowns (42) during his high school career, Caprio is more likely to appear in special short-yardage packages than as the starter ahead of Callahan or Paulus.
Seniors Chase Hill and Cameron Dohse enter the fall as the top receivers on the depth chart. At 6’0”, 185 lbs, Dohse emerged as a big-play threat last season, averaging 18.9 yards per catch, the second-best total in the conference. A five-catch, 148-yard performance in the NCAA Semifinals against Villanova established Dohse as the top downfield target for the College heading into the year.
Chase enters the fall as the Tribe’s slot receiver, utilizing his 6’2”, 200-lb. frame to give the College a presence in the middle of the field. The senior, who started 13 games and ranked third on the team with 469 yards in 2009, will be asked to take on the role of possession receiver this year.
Backing up Chase Hill and Dohse are sophomores C.J. Thomas and Ryan Moody. Thomas was the star of spring and fall practices and possesses an intriguing combination of speed and athleticism, while Moody comes into the fall looking to regain the form that made him one of the Tribe’s more valuable receivers before he was injured last year.
Junior Alex Gottlieb takes over for the now-graduated Rob Varno at tight end, and, with his size — 6’3”, 240 lbs. — and strength, should continue the tradition of strong receiving tight ends at the College.
With 24 career starts, senior left tackle Keith Hill, will be the most experienced player on the line this season. Keith moves over to left tackle due to the absence of suspended junior Jake Marcey, and will be expected to anchor the line this fall.
After Hill, the situation on the line gets murkier, as most of the starters will be either inexperienced or untested. Senior Derek Toon is the most experienced of the bunch, making 13 starts at right guard last season. Toon’s aggressiveness will be utilized in the run game, as the Tribe backs look to go off the right side behind Toon and sophomore Mike Salazar. Although appearing in eight games last season, Salazar has yet to start a collegiate contest.
Redshirt freshman James Johnson III will start at the left guard spot next to Keith Hill in his first action on the collegiate level, and junior James Pagliaro will start at center. Pagliaro played in five games last season after converting from defensive tackle as a sophomore. Redshirt freshman Matt Crisafi also looks to get some playing time at the center spot.
–Sports Editor Jack Lambert