Football spring game tests team depth, exposes strengths, weaknesses

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Sophomores Shon Mitchell, Dean Rotger, Ted Hefter and junior Brandon Battle all entered the game in the quarterback position as the four men will continue to compete for a position in the fall season. PHOTO COURTESY // TRIBE ATHLETICS.

Head coach Jimmye Laycock ’70 and William and Mary came into this offseason looking for answers. Last year’s winless conference slate, Laycock’s first in his 37 years at the helm of the Tribe, certainly raised a few questions.

Saturday’s Green and Gold Spring game, the culmination of the football program’s offseason practices, offered few of the answers the College was looking for. Instead of sorting out the battle for the quarterback position, it may have muddled it further, and instead of revealing go-to playmakers on the offensive side, no clear stars emerged.

However, the team clearly showed what its identity will be this season the type of old-school, smashmouth football Laycock’s teams have been known for when they are at their best. Running the ball and stopping the run will be key to the Tribe’s success.

Even for a running team, though, everything starts and ends with the quarterback position. Laycock felt that while each player showed their strengths and weaknesses, none stood out more than the others.

“They all showed good things, and they all showed things they need to work on,” Laycock said. “It’s good for them to all play in a semi-game-type environment.”

Sophomore Shon Mitchell started at quarterback for the first-stringers, but went three-and-out on both of his first two possessions. Then, on his first possession back in the game in the second half, he misfired on a deep pass, leading to an interception by redshirt freshman safety Gage Herdman.

“I have to be disciplined,” Mitchell said. “Just a simple mental mistake. I just have to be stronger and more disciplined than that.”

“I have to be disciplined,” Mitchell said. “Just a simple mental mistake. I just have to be stronger and more disciplined than that.”

Junior quarterback Brandon Battle, in his first possession behind center with the second team, was picked off by redshirt freshman cornerback Jaden Barnes, who returned it for a touchdown. In his second, however, Battle bounced back, connecting on a couple throws before the Tribe offense’s drive stalled out.

Sophomore Dean Rotger took over at quarterback in the second quarter and, after throwing his first pass away, quickly completed two passes to move the offense down the field. Redshirt freshman running back Owen Wright converted a fourth-and-one to help the cause. An ill-advised lob down the sideline almost turned into a pick, but the Tribe offense converted on its good field position, as redshirt freshman kicker Jake Johnston knocked his kick through the uprights from 40 yards out. In the second half, Rotger completed the Tribe’s longest pass of the day to redshirt freshman receiver Amonyae Watson for just over 45 yards.

Sophomore quarterback Ted Hefter entered for the last possession of the half, running the two-minute offense with confidence. He completed five of six passes, all to tight ends and running backs. Hefter even got in front of sophomore running back Nate Evans to block on a first-down run. Junior kicker Kris Hooper hit his 32-yard field goal. Hefter came back out to start the second half and led a solid drive, but it stalled at about the defense’s 15-yard line.

“Brandon, he conducted some drives and put some drives together, that was good,” offensive coordinator DJ Mangas ’12 said. “He made some throws. All of them looked like they were fairly decisive, for the most part. Looking at [Ted], you know, you could say the same thing for all of them. They made some throws … they did some good things, but each and every one of them made some mistakes as well.”

Even with the inconsistency at the quarterback position, the running game showed its strength. Junior running backs Albert Funderburke, Jr. and Brehon Britt, along with sophomores Noah Giles, Jaret Anderson and Evans, all got meaningful touches.

Funderburke, who saw a reduced role last season as he was returning from a serious knee injury, showed flashes of his freshman year self, when he was a tough player to bring down. Anderson and Evans both were good options as receivers out of the backfield, an important position for a team who is losing safety blanket Andrew Caskin, who is graduating this year, from the tight end spot. Britt showed off his speed, busting through the defense on a run that was called back on a holding penalty. And Giles, who had the most carries last season for the Tribe, converted on a few short-yardage situations.

“I thought [the running backs] had a really good spring,” Laycock said.

“I thought [the running backs] had a really good spring,” Laycock said. “It’s so good to see Albert [Funderburke] back in there … Thinking about the identity on offense, today we threw the ball a lot more than we ran the ball. Now, whether that’s going to be us or not I don’t know.”

Come summer, the five of them will be battling for the role of primary ball-carrier. However, chances are that the Tribe will roll with a rotation of backs.

On the defensive side of things, the Tribe looks just as strong as it was last season. The defensive line, led by juniors Gavin Johnson and Joe Suarez, got consistent pressure on the quarterback.

At the same time, the secondary looks primed to make big plays this fall. Alongside the two interceptions, the cornerbacks and safeties broke up a number of passes.

“Defensively, I think we’re probably about where we should be,” Laycock said. “Offensively, we’ve got to pick it up a little more.”

It’s never a good sign for your offense when the defense wins a scrimmage in which the only way it can score is a defensive touchdown. But it’s important to note that in the offseason, a football team’s defense is often furthest ahead in its development. This isn’t a good look for the Tribe offense, but we’ll have to wait for the fall to see whether the sputtering offense is a sign of greater issues or just a bump in the road.

One thing is clear: if the Tribe is going to win football games this season, it’s going to have to run the ball.