Two years ago, coach Jimmye Laycock and the Tribe completed what was arguably the greatest season in the College’s storied football history, recording 11 wins and advancing all the way to the NCAA Division I-AA semifinals. Last year, the Tribe started strong, at one time sporting a 5-2 record and ranked as high as ninth in the nation, before beginning a downward spiral. The College would not record a victory in their final four contests and wound up 5-6. The woes continued this year, as the Tribe regressed yet again, recording just three wins and finishing with their worst record (3-8) since 1982, Laycock’s third year at the helm.
p. “It’s easy to look back and see the successes we had in 2004,” senior defensive back Alan Wheeling said. “As far as the last couple years are concerned, I think it is just a lack of consistency. I don’t really think it’s the way we prepared, I don’t really think it’s personnel, and I don’t know exactly where to point fingers.”
p. That seems to have been the problem with the Tribe this year. At certain points during the season, a different aspect of the team has looked stellar. Unfortunately, these individual spurts have seldom occurred simultaneously. For the strong defensive efforts against Virginia Military Institute, Hofstra University and Liberty University, there were massive defensive meltdowns to the likes of the University of Massachusetts, James Madison University and Villanova University. While in some games the offense piled up 38, 31 and 29 points, there were numerous contests in which the traditionally explosive offense was held in check.
p. “The offense and the defense, we were never on the same page,” sophomore cornerback Derek Cox said. “If one was playing well, the other one wasn’t. We just didn’t get it done.”
p. On the defensive side of the ball, a core of veteran players surrounded by more inexperienced players struggled to overcome injury and adversity as the season wore on. The Tribe opened the season with an impressive defensive performance against the University of Maryland, and the defense put the Tribe in a position to defeat the University of Maine, but shortly following a number of key injuries, including sophomore linebacker Josh Rutter’s season-ending ACL tear, the unit’s confidence collapsed.
p. “After a while our defense lost its swagger a little bit,” redshirt freshman defensive end Adrian Tracy said. “We always talk about playing with an attitude that people can’t stop us, and I think we lost that as we were progressing because we would get down on ourselves after a big play or a touchdown, and then we would fall apart mentally.”
p. Concerning the defense, a lack of consistency was clearly to blame. For the offense, the problem was an abundance of uncertainty. Sophomore Jake Philips entered the season as the Tribe’s clear number one starter at quarterback, but following a series of unproductive performances, Laycock handed over the offensive reigns to junior Mike Potts. At times during the season, each quarterback looked impressive, but each had his struggles. When the final horn blew against the University of Richmond to signal the end of the season, neither had established himself as the clear starter for next year.
p. “It is tough as a receiver seeing two different quarterbacks, because you kind of want to get comfortable with somebody just to kind of get in a rhythm,” junior receiver Joe Nicholas said. “I think that had some of the reason to do with the [inconsistency this] season, but we were just trying to have the best person in there at the best time to help the team.”
p. The play of senior running back Elijah Brooks, however, was never uncertain. Brooks built on his success from the previous year, averaging 84.6 yards per game on the ground en route to gaining 931 yards on the season and 2,536 for his career, enough to place him sixth on the College’s all-time rushing yards list. Due to Brooks’ key role, the new starter at running back will be under pressure to perform immediately.
p. “We are going to miss him, but I think myself and the other running backs will be able to pick up the slack. We won’t lose a step,” sophomore running back DeBrian Holmes said.
p. Now that the season is over, the seniors face the realization that not only their football careers, but their time at the College as well, are drawing to a close.
p. “You get caught up in practicing and meetings and film and you overlook the time you are having,” Wheeling said. “Now, having been off for a couple weeks, I have had a chance to look back and reflect, and without question it’s been the best time of my life. My time here has been a dream come true and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
p. As the seniors prepare for life after college and football, the rest of the team has hit the weight room to prepare for next season.
p. “We are already starting to work hard in the offseason. If we continue to work hard, then we won’t need to worry about having another season like we did this year,” Holmes said. “We have a young team, so I think next year we will just come out and do our thing.”
p. “The ball was in our court,” Cox said. “This year, we were in every game, just things didn’t go our way. Going into the offseason, we will take a business-like approach to getting better.”
p. In addition to offseason conditioning, the amount of playing time underclassmen received this year will be crucial to their development moving forward.
p. “A lot of the kids that played this year were extremely talented but did not have a lot of game experience,” Nicholas said. “Hopefully having that year to get used to it will jump-start them into next year and bring the team together.”