Football: Game week

Well it’s been eight months and 21 days since William and Mary last took the field on a frigid Philadelphia night last December, and there are only 3 more until the squad does so again. Saturday at 3:30 p.m. is the time for which Tribe fans have been waiting, at which point the 2010 season will kick off against Massachusetts. Here are a few, quick points to tide you over until the weekend. Or at least until the full Flat Hat football preview runs on Friday, featuring superb design and analysis from sports editor Mike Barnes.

Mike Callahan

The most talked about name in Tribe sports for the past several days, Callahan is something of a rarity in college football: the loyal upperclassmen who beats out more hyped prospects, including a major transfer, to win his job, as well as a rare quarterback that stands under six feet tall. I had a chance to speak with senior left tackle Keith Hill about both of those points this week, and he felt strongly about each.

While many Tribe fans had barely heard of Callahan before Monday, Hill has roomed with the fellow fifth-year player for three years, dating back to their days on the practice squad together.

“I remember back to my freshman year and he would raise hell on the defense,” Hill said. “Against the starting defense, when we were on scout team, I remember one time when we ran a fade, six times in a row, against two different corners and he got touchdowns on four or five of the six passes. So he’s had the confidence to succeed since he was a freshman, and I’m glad he never lost that.”

Hill’s testimony echoes what virtually everybody I’ve talked to has said about Callahan: he’ll bring strong confidence and leadership skills to the table, as well as a very accurate arm. Expect the senior to look much more like R.J. Archer out there than Jake Phillips or Lang Campbell. Callahan’s got a great stable of running backs behind him, so he won’t be taking many chances with the football, especially in the early going. The quarterback’s strength lies firmly in his game management skills and knowledge of the College’s playbook.

Which links to that height issue as well. I asked Hill whether the offensive line had made any adjustments to playing with a shorter quarterback behind them. After all, Callahan is listed at (a generous) 5’11”, while his shortest starting offensive lineman stands 6’3”

“It doesn’t change one thing,” Hill replied. “[Callahan] had the same problem in high school. His knowledge of the offense and defense is just a little more important, because there are going to be times where he is just not going to be able to see over a 6’ 5” tackle. He’s just got to know, this guy is going to be open and that’s where my throw is going. Drew Brees is 5’ 10” and he does alright.”

Any discussion of Callahan, shouldn’t undersell his arm, however. While not possessive of quite as powerful a body type as his now backups, junior Mike Paulus and redshirt freshman Brent Caprio, the senior can sling it when he needs to, connecting on several long passes in practice over the past week. But, as the offense adjusts to a new quarterback who has never taken a collegiate snap, don’t expect to see Head Coach Jimmye Laycock get too imaginative early in the season.

The offensive line

After a solid, but not spectacular year last year and the loss of standout tackle Jake Marcey to suspension, one might be concerned about the state of the College’s offensive line this year. The unit will boast three new starters, including junior center James Pagliaro and redshirt freshman guard James Johnson. But both Hill and Laycock are optimistic about the unit’s youth movement heading into the season opener.

“I feel like cohesion is at an all time high,” Hill said. “We essentially know what the other guy is going to do without even saying anything, and that’s something that’s very important because a lot of times you don’t have time to say something to the guy next to you.”

One key to the progression might be Pagliaro, who stayed in Williamsburg to lead his fellow lineman in workouts and weight training.

“He’s really taken on a great leadership role at center, and has a great deal of confidence,” Hill said. “The center generally has the final say in a lot of our calls, and he’s just done a great job.”

In addition to Pagliaro, sophomores Johnson and Mike Salazar will be getting their first extended chances at playing time, while backup sophomore Robbie Gumbita has played sparingly as well. While untested, the trio has loads of potential and are highly regarded by the coaching staff. The rapidity of their development this year could factor heavily into the length of the College’s season.

The defense

How do you replace three NFL draft picks in two years at an FCS program? Not easily. But just as B.W. Webb took over quite capably as a redshirt freshman for departed cornerback Derek Cox, juniors defensive end Ravi Pradhanang and defensive tackle Harold Robertson could do the same for Adrian Tracy and Sean Lissemore.

Despite losing three starters, the College’s defensive line has looked nearly as strong as it was last season, and they hope to be able to sneak up on some teams who might expect them to be down this year.

“Those guys up front are really powerful and fast and just great athletes,” senior linebacker Evan Francks said. “We’re going to let them get [into the backfield]. You should see them rush the passer.”

In turn, that could be great news for Francks and his fellow linebackers, who could have to deal with extra blockers depending on the effectiveness of the line. Last year, the linebacking corps went virtually unmarked as the opposing offensive line struggled to mark Tracy, Lissemore and defensive end C.J. Herbert. In the short term, teams will likely assign at least one blocker to interfere with Francks and linebackers junior Jake Trantin and senior Wes Steinman on many plays.

“I think it could change a little bit,” Francks said. “But once UMass and teams see how good those guys up front are now, they’ll be more conservative.”

If teams are forced to use all their lineman to neutralize the College’s defensive line, the linebackers could wreak havock, much like they did last season.


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