2015 Spring Football Preview: Defense & Special Teams

Linebacker Ian Haislip will see his role increase this season. (via tribeathletics.com by Bob Keroack)
Linebacker Ian Haislip will have an increased role this coming season. (via tribeathletics.com by Bob Keroack)

With the Spring Game now just a few days away, we’re continuing our preview of the 2015 Tribe football team, as we move on to the defense and special teams. If you haven’t already checked out our piece on the offense, be sure to do so here! Without further ado, on to the defense.

William & Mary’s defense had its ups and downs last season, but when it was all said and done, the unit ranked in the bottom half of the CAA. A strong offseason will undoubtedly be key in turning things around. Below are the Tribe’s defensive rankings from this past season; keep in mind that the numerical rankings indicate where the unit finished with regards to the 11 other teams in the CAA.

  • Total Sacks: #4
    (the Tribe garnered 34 total sacks)
  • Scoring Defense: #5
    (allowed 22.7 average points per game)
  • Rushing Defense: #5
    (allowed 148.6 average rushing yards per game)
  • Opponent’s Third Down Conversion Rate: #7
    (opponents converted 39.9% of third downs against the Tribe)
  • Red Zone Defense: #10
    (Tribe defense ranked third last, opponents scored either a field goal or a touchdown on 31 of 37 red zone possessions– 83.8 percent of the time)
  • Pass Defense: #11
    (allowed 241.5 average passing yards per game–2nd worst in the CAA)
  • Total Defense: #9
    (allowed 390.1 average yards per game)

One can glean from this information where the defense needs to improve this coming year. The rankings alone point to a glaring need to fix the team’s pass defense, as well as its red zone defense. The group returns several key starters, but also loses several instrumental pieces, especially along the defensive line, at safety, and at the linebacker positions. The Tribe will need to put in a lot of work this offseason, starting with this Saturday’s Spring game, but the team looks to have the depth to pull off the turnaround.

Isaiah Stephens continue to wreak havoc on opposing Quarterbacks in 2015. (Jonathon Gruenke, Daily Press)
#73 Isaiah Stephens will look to wreak havoc on opposing Quarterbacks in 2015. (Jonathon Gruenke, Daily Press)

Defensive Line
Defensive Ends
The defensive line will be absolutely instrumental for the defense this coming season–especially after the losses of both starting defensive ends, Mike Reilly (CAA Defensive Player of the Year) and Stephen Sinnott (Senior captain). Reilly alone tallied 10 total sacks, and is now busy proving to NFL teams that he deserves a camp invite. The loss in production and leadership from both Reilly and Sinnott will be hard to bear, but needs to be overcome if the unit wants to win the battle in the trenches.

Looking to replace Reilly and Sinnott at defensive end will be #48 Peyton Gryder, #87 Braxton Hicks, #58 Matthew Aloha, #97 Xavier Roscoe, and #74 Christian Chisolm. Gryder, with far and away the most experience of the group, looks to have one of the two defensive end positions locked up. He played as a reserve in all 12 games last season, and tallied 24 tackles, 3 sacks, and a forced fumble. However, the other defensive end spot looks to be wide open for the taking.

Hicks, Aloha, and Roscoe (all but Chisolm) have limited playing experience, and saw game action last season. If one were the betting type, Roscoe and Hicks saw the most playing time of the group–so one of them may have the upper hand in the competition at this point. Either way, this will be one of the most interesting battles to follow this offseason, and one you should look out for at this Saturday’s game.

Defensive Tackles
In direct contrast to open competition at the defensive end position, there is no controversy when it comes to who the Tribe’s starting defensive tackles will be. The Tribe returns two big men up front who clog up the hole, eat up running backs, and get after the quarterback. These two are #73 Isaiah Stephens and #99 Tyler Claytor. Claytor is listed on the roster at 6’3” 280 lbs, while Stephens is listed at 6’2” 324 lbs–in short, these boys can pack a punch.

Last season, Stephens became the first true freshman to start on the Tribe’s defensive line since 2001, recording 42 tackles and 3 sacks. Claytor, a senior this coming season, is coming off a year that saw him record 31 tackles and 5 total sacks. So not only can these two stop the run, but they also have the rare ability to pass rush from the interior of the line. We expect big things out of these two this coming season.

Senior Captain Luke Rhodes will look to earn his third First Team All-CAA honor this season.  [via tribeathletics.com]
Senior Captain Luke Rhodes will look to earn his third First Team All-CAA honor in the Fall. [via tribeathletics.com]
Linebackers
This year’s linebacking corps will have to cope with the loss of Airek Green to graduation. Green earned Third Team All-CAA last season, and was a do-it-all LB who filled up stat sheets. This year, senior #50 Luke Rhodes will lead as a team Captain for his second season in a row at the middle linebacker position. Rhodes finished 13th in total tackles last year in the CAA, and will undoubtedly look to improve on that number this season. Rhodes is a two-time First Team All-CAA selection, who really needs no introduction.

As Rhodes patrols the middle of the field, he looks to be joined by senior #40 Ian Haislip at the weak side linebacker position. Haislip came on strong last season, appearing in all 12 games, starting two of them. His roll will increase this season, as he looks to not only appear in, but start in all 12 games this coming year.

On the other side of Rhodes at the strong side position, we project a position battle between two redshirt freshmen: #39 Josh Dulaney and #45 Spencer Kleinrichert. Both redshirted last season, with Dulaney earning the W&M Quarterback Club Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year. This competition between two freshmen will be yet another offseason battle to keep your eyes on this weekend.

Cornerbacks
As shown in the statistics at the beginning of this article, the Tribe’s pass defense needs to greatly improve this coming year. Luckily for W&M, the team will lose no cornerbacks to graduation, and has several players with valuable game-time experience under their belts returning. Senior cornerback #36 DeAndre Houston-Carson looks to headline this group. “DHC” accounted for 67 total tackles, 7 passes defended, 3 INT, and an insane 4 blocked kicks last season in just 9 games –and will undoubtedly be a leader in the secondary this year.

Another returning starter for the Tribe is #8 Trey Reed. Reed is smaller in size, listed at just 5’8” and 160 lb on the roster, but is one of the fastest players on the team. Reed had his ups and downs last season, but started all 12 games and gained valuable experience in the system before finishing with 49 tackles, three forced fumbles, and five passes defended. Look for Reed to make strides this offseason.

Joining the projected starting corners listed above will be two sophomores in #27 Aaron Swinton and #26 Denzel Dykes. Swinton saw significant playing time last season, starting the final three contests as Trey Reed fell to injury. On the other hand, Dykes appeared in 11 games in what was only his true freshman season–showing the coaches’ faith in him and just how much potential he has. The division of playing time between these two sophomores will be interesting to see this coming season.

Pictured: DeAndre Houston-Carson (Rob Ostermaier, Daily Press )
Pictured: DeAndre Houston-Carson
(Rob Ostermaier, Daily Press )

Safeties
The Tribe loses senior safety Ivan Tagoe, but will return the likes of #31 Jared Velasquez. Velasquez has manned the strong safety position for the past two seasons and has performed admirably; he ranked second on the team last season with 73 total tackles–and is a big, physical safety who can really get after people. However, with the loss of Tagoe, the free safety position represents another position that is wide open for the taking.

The free safety position looks to be filled by sophomore #38 Mike Barta. Barta is a long, lankier safety–checking in at 6’2” and 177 lbs. Last season, he played as a reserve and appeared in three games, but did not record any statistics. Barta will strive to take the next step this season, looking to be a ballhawk on the last line of defense for the Tribe. His development will be crucial this offseason.

Special Teams: Kicking & Punting
The Tribe loses senior kicker John Carpenter, last year’s CAA Special Teams Player of the Year, to graduation. However, the team has two very capable replacements in junior #32 Hunter Windmuller (punter) and sophomore #43 Nick Dorka (kicker). Hunter Windmuller transferred to W&M from Va. Tech a year ago, and saw action in six of the Tribe’s first seven games before missing the final five games due to injury. When he played, Windmuller averaged 43.6 yards per punt, which ranks second on W&M’s single-season list.

When Carpenter missed games last season after voluntarily donating his bone marrow to a person in need, Dorka stepped up his game. Dorka connected on two of three field goal attempts and all seven of his extra point opportunities. And even when Windmuller also went down with injury, Dorka took over punting duties as well and averaged 43.2 yards per punt–which actually now ranks third on W&M’s single-season list, just behind Windmuller. Any way you look at it, punting and kicking should be an area of strength for the Tribe in the seasons to come with these two at the helm.

Wrap Up

There will be plenty of position battles to watch on the defensive side of the ball this weekend. Only time will tell as to how improved this unit will be from a season ago, but we believe that they will get the job done.

Don’t forget, the Spring game is this Saturday April 11, at 1:30 PM, in Zable Stadium! It will also be Admitted Students Day– so put on your Green and Gold, lather up the suntan lotion (assuming it’s sunny!), and get ready to enjoy some Tribe football in the month of April! What could be better than that? LET’S GO TRIBE!!!

P.S. Refresh the page multiple times to view all of our new header pictures at the top of the screen! All of them were just created and uploaded tonight! We hope you enjoy them!

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