Since its last National Collegiate Athletic Association playoff bid in 2015, William and Mary football has been anything but exciting, but if Saturday’s performance was anything to judge by, that may be changing.
The most striking feature of the season-opening 30-17 victory wasn’t the defense’s stellar second half, nor sophomore running back Owen Wright’s tough running. Instead, it was the energy that new head coach Mike London and the Tribe brought. The game was — dare I say — fun?
Suffice it to say that football has not been fun in Williamsburg for the past three seasons.
In the dog days of legendary head coach Jimmye Laycock’s ’70 tenure, the Tribe was mediocre at best (finishing 5-6 in 2016) and absolutely putrid at worst (going winless in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2017). But, even more than that, the grinding, slow, pro-style offense Laycock preferred was a snooze fest. A throwback to the days when the forward pass was a novelty, the Laycock offense resembled a 2003 Chrysler Voyager: it was never sexy, but it might have gotten the job done – ten years ago.
Compounding the College’s issues, the Tribe couldn’t find a competent answer for quarterback. Steve Cluley, who led the Tribe to the playoffs in 2015 as a junior with a stacked cast of characters on defense including DeAndre Houston-Carson ’16 and Luke Rhodes ’16, threw as many interceptions as touchdowns his senior season.
The following year, the Tribe split starts between Tommy McKee ’17, who spent a spell as the team’s starting punter as well, and Shon Mitchell, who was a true freshman at the time. In total, the College only completed 51 percent of its passes in 2016, which is, well, not good.
Last season, Mitchell started six games while then-sophomore Ted Hefter started three and Dean Rotger — who isn’t even a quarterback anymore but rather a junior wide receiver – picked up a single start. While the numbers improved on the disastrous previous season, the Tribe only threw for 186.2 yards per game and put just 13.6 points up on the board per contest.
This year, with a new coaching staff as well as a new mentality, the Tribe is attempting to make its football more appealing. This push for a faster-paced, higher-scoring offense is led by offensive coordinator Brennan Marion whose “Go-Go” offense is pushing boundaries. Already, this tricked-out Corvette of an offense scored more points against Lafayette than it did in any single game last season.
No matter what, the College will be more entertaining to watch this season. But, will they be better? It all depends on who they have in the driver’s seat. Based on Saturday, they might have the right person to put the pedal to the metal in freshman quarterback Hollis Mathis.
Mathis was one of three quarterbacks to see extended time on Saturday (the others being Hefter and graduate student Kilton Anderson) but was the most impressive of the bunch. Finishing with 127 yards rushing and a touchdown, as well as 66 yards through the air on 6-of-13 passing, Mathis showed off both his arm and his legs. While his accuracy was inconsistent at times, Mathis was electrifying outside of the pocket, making something happen on almost every play.
Mathis is a true freshman, which means he almost certainly has a ways to go in terms of learning how to be aggressive without playing reckless and making silly mistakes. At this point though, it makes the Tribe extremely fun to watch – something is going to happen on every offensive play, but nobody knows what.
The most exciting play on Saturday was a prime example of who Mathis is and why he needs to be the College’s primary guy at quarterback. On a third down and five in the fourth quarter, Mathis mishandled a high snap. He turned around, picked it up, and immediately found a running lane, turning what looked like a sure loss of yardage into a first down and more.
Mathis is obviously still learning, and he will continue to learn each play he’s on the field, but, right now, he’s the most exciting player the Tribe has had in years. He shows the potential to be a special player for the College, certainly down the line, but also this season.
Obviously, how good the Tribe actually is this season will depend on a number of factors. Can the defense continue to force turnovers? Will the kicking game rebound from a catastrophic 2018? How will the Tribe fare through a brutal schedule?
Arguably, though, the College has the most important question, the player behind center, figured out for the foreseeable future. And, regardless of how well the team does this season, it will no doubt be fun to watch.