Spring Football: Things to Watch for on Defense

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We continue our two-part football series with a preview of the Tribe’s 2016 defensive unit. If you missed last week’s preview of the 2016 offense, you can check it out here! The Green and Gold graduated several key players across all lines of the defense this past season, but several players look hungry and ready to take their places. Who will those players be? What kind of things are we watching for on defense this offseason? Ahead of the Spring Game taking place in just under TWO WEEKS (April 16), it’s time to find out!

But before we do, let’s look at some key statistics that the Tribe defense totaled last season, and how they stacked up to the rest of the CAA (out of 12 teams):

  • Opponents’ Third Down Conversion Rate#9
    (opponents converted 44.9% of third downs–down from 39.9% in 2014)
  • Total Sacks#8 
    (22 total sacks–down from 34 sacks in 2014 season)
  • Scoring Defense#7 
    (opponent’s averaged 22.7 ppg vs. the Tribe–tied with 2014)
  • Rushing Defense#6
    (opponent’s averaged 153.7 rushing yards per game–down from 148.5 in 2014)
  • Pass Defense#6
    (opponents averaged 202.6 passing yards per game–up from 241.5 in 2014)
  • Total Defense#6
    (opponents averaged 356.3 total yards per game–up from 390.1 in 2014)
  • Red Zone Defense#4
    (opponents scored on 76.7% of red zone attempts– up from 83.8% in 2014)
  • Turnover Margin#2
    (W&M averaged .54 turnovers per game–down from an insane .92 in 2014)

Looking at the numbers, one can clearly see that the Tribe defense finished in the middle of the pack. The team’s sack totals ended up in the bottom half of the league and opponents’ third down conversion rate was far too high. Interestingly enough, this didn’t translate to the red zone, where the Tribe defense tended to stiffen, finishing with the fourth best red zone defense in the CAA.

Another area where the Tribe defense performed well was in the turnover margin. In the recent past, it seems like W&M has performed very well in this category–and it’s good to see. Of the Tribe’s 25 forced turnovers last season, 7 came by way of forced fumbles, and 18 came through interceptions. The 18 interception total was good enough for the second most in the CAA, behind only Richmond, who finished with 22.

Tyler Claytor may have just won the game for the Tribe with this field goal block.[photo: JAMES WALLACE/TIMES-DISPATCH]
Tyler Claytor may have just won the game for the Tribe with this field goal block against Duquesne during last year’s playoffs.  [photo: JAMES WALLACE/TIMES-DISPATCH]
The main takeaway from last season was that although the Tribe was able to force turnovers on a consistent enough basis, the unit did not tend to excel in any other phases–despite several defensive players finishing with all-CAA honors. Relying on turnovers to get the job done is risky business, akin to a basketball team that relies on the 3-point shot but has little to no inside game. Some days, the shots just don’t fall, or in this case, the turnovers aren’t forced. It’s much safer to excel across all levels of the defense (easier said than done), and not have to rely on turnovers, which statistically vary from game to game.

Now there were some games where the defense stood on its head and played above and beyond the call of duty (21-0 shutout of Stony Brook and a 38-16 drubbing of Villanova), but there were also games where the defense had to be bailed out by the offense (44-41 win over JMU and 52-49 playoff win over Duquesne).

This year, as the defense rebuilds across each positional unit, the Tribe hopes to see more consistency throughout the season. With a strong offseason, young players stepping up to the plate, and excellent coaching, the Tribe has all the pieces in place to improve upon last year’s statistics this coming Fall.

Who will replace NFL-bound Safety DeAndre Houston-Carson and longtime starter Jared Velasquez? 

Senior captain DeAndre Houston-Carson was an all-time player for the Tribe. He earned first-team honors, playing at both the cornerback and safety position throughout his collegiate career. DHC now finds himself zeroing in on a mid-round 2016 NFL draft selection, after performing well in both the Senior Bowl and the 2016 NFL Combine. He was even mentioned by NFL Network as one of the top-10 small school prospects in this year’s draft! if you haven’t read about that already, definitely check it out here.

So we mention all of this to say that DHC will be sorely missed on this year’s Tribe team, as more than one player will have to step up to fill his shoes; no single player will be able to replace him alone. On top of that, the Tribe loses longtime strong safety Jared Velasquez to graduation–who last year finished the season with 48 tackles and one interception.

Mike Barta will see his role increase tremendously with the graduation of DeAndre Houston-Carson and Jared Velasquez. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Mike Barta will see his role increase tremendously with the graduation of DeAndre Houston-Carson and Jared Velasquez. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Stepping up to fill one of the safety positions will be rising junior Mike Barta. The Ashburn, VA native (shameless shoutout, as the writers of the WMSB also hail from Ashburn) saw action in all 13 games last season and earned three starts. The sophomore finished last season with an impressive 40 tackles, one interception, and four passes broken up. Barta showed immense potential last year, as he progressed when given more and more playing time. The 6’2″ 190 pound safety will look to have a big offseason and take that big step forward in assuming a full-time starting role for the Tribe.

With one of the two safety positions locked up, that leaves one big hole for the Tribe on the other side of the field. This will be one of the most interesting offseason battles to watch, as three experienced juniors and one sophomore will vie for the starting job: Keanu ReubenRichie DiPietroAnthony Fullum, and Shamir Bearfield (sophomore). Both Reuben and DiPietro appeared in all 13 games last season, as Reuben finished the year with 35 tackles and DiPietro with 11. However, Fullum also saw action in four games, and Bearfield is a transfer from Temple. It’ll be interesting to see how this one plays out. Be sure to keep an eye on the safety position this Spring.

Who will replace senior captain and defensive tackle Tyler Claytor?

Another senior and everyday contributor Tyler Claytor totaled 4.5 sacks, 37 tackles, 1 pass break up, and an insane 4 blocked kicks (ranked 4th nationally) en route to garnering first-team VaSID all-state honors and a first-team All-CAA selection last season. In his absence, we expect rising junior Isaiah Stephens along with rising senior Chris Donald to pick up the slack on the inside of the line.

Isaiah Stephens, the Tribe's version of "Pot Roast," is truly a monster on the inside of the line. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Isaiah Stephens, the Tribe’s version of “Pot Roast,” is truly a monster on the inside of the line. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Isaiah Stephens is a 6’2″ 324 pound behemoth inside who earned starts in his freshman year. Last season, in what was his sophomore campaign, Stephens started all 13 games at defensive tackle opposite Tyler Claytor, and finished with 36 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and a forced fumble. Stephens will be expected to step up this year in Claytor’s stead, as he will not only look to clog the run lanes, but also look to get after the quarterback.

Joining Stephens will be senior Chris Donald. Donald has had an interesting playing history with the Tribe, as he saw action in 11 games as a reserve lineman his redshirt freshman year. However, the following season, he suffered a season-ending injury in the very first game against Virginia Tech. Returning from injury, Donald appeared in 11 games last season, finishing with 18 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. We’re rooting for Donald to take his game up a notch, now with a year of experience under his belt. And on a team that will be hungry for sacks next year, Donald’s 2 sacks will hopefully foreshadow good things to come in 2016.

Lastly, who will replace the Tribe’s all-time great linebacker Luke Rhodes–along with fellow senior starters Ian Haislip and Zach Fetters?

Yet another defensive captain lost to graduation! With the loss of Rhodes, the Tribe has graduated three players, all at different levels of the defense, who have contributed mightily to the Tribe’s success over the last several seasons. Rhodes leaves William & Mary as a 2-year captain, and THREE TIME All-CAA First team selection. Absolutely unheard of. To add insult to injury, the Tribe not only loses Rhodes, but also loses fellow senior linebackers Ian Haislip and Zach Fetters.

Fetters was a revelation in 2015, earning an increased role as both Rhodes and Haislip went down with injuries at different times during the season. Fetters took full advantage, finishing with 60 tackles. Haislip, despite missing five games with injury, finished with 31 tackles. And of course, Rhodes finished second on the team with 78 total tackles. Adding them up, that’s 169 total tackles that the Tribe will have to account for this year. Yikes.

Senior linebacker Stephen Lubnow saw significant playing time last season, and will likely move into a starting role in 2016. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Senior linebacker Stephen Lubnow saw significant playing time last season, and will likely move into a starting role in 2016. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
As such, several players will be vying for the linebacker spots this offseason. Odds are strong that rising seniors Stephen Lubnow and Marcus Harvey will get the first cracks this offseason. Last year, Lubnow appeared in all 13 games, earning 5 starts. He racked up an impressive 52 tackles, totaling 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Showing his potential, Lubnow played like a man possessed in a losing effort to Delaware, in which he finished with 16 tackles, including 11 solo tackles. Joining Lubnow may be fellow senior Marcus Harvey, who overcame an injury last season to earn six starts in eight games played, finishing with 25 total tackles. Assuming he’s at full-go this offseason, Harvey has the ability to get the job done and secure one of the starting linebacker positions.

Another player to watch will be rising sophomore Josh Dulaney. Dulaney earned two starts in seven games last season, despite missing five games due to injury. He finished the year with 19 tackles and one interception. Let’s not forget to mention that interception came in Scott Stadium vs. UVA. The fact that the coaches had him in playing significant minutes against UVA as a redshirt freshman speaks volumes as to where the coaches see him contributing for the Tribe in 2016.

Bonus: How is the Tribe looking at the cornerback & defensive end positions this Fall?

At the cornerback position, the Tribe returns plenty of talent. Multi-year starter Trey Reed returns as a senior this season, and looks to anchor a deep defensive backfield. Reed led the team in interceptions last year, finishing tied for third in the CAA with 3 interceptions. Joining Reed will be juniors Aaron SwintonDenzel Dykes, and sophomore Raeshawn Smith. Swinton suffered a season-ending injury last season in the opener against Lafayette. He earned the start in that game, opposite Trey Reed, but will likely need to compete this offseason to regain the starting position.

Any advantage senior Trey Reed gives up with his 5'8" height he makes up with his speed and athleticism. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Any advantage senior Trey Reed gives up with his 5’8″ height he makes up with his speed and athleticism. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Dykes and Smith look to give Swinton a run for his money this offseason–as both saw significant playing time in 2015. Dykes earned eight starts (1 interception), and Smith earned four starts (2 interceptions). Competition for the #2 spot will be fierce, but any way you slice it, the Tribe will be deep at cornerback and all of these players will see plenty of action in 2016.

The defensive end position will need to improve this offseason, as the Tribe finished with the 8th most sacks in the CAA a season ago, down 12 sacks from a season ago. Leading the unit will be rising senior Peyton Gryder, who ended 1st on the team with 5.0 sacks, while also garnering 10 tackles for loss and 47 total tackles. Gryder was a bright spot at the defensive end position last year, and we’re looking for many more to join him in 2016. Matt Ahola showed great promise in 2015, as he earned 11 starts in 13 games, totaling 2.0 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and one forced fumble. Ahola is another player the Tribe defense needs to step up this coming season to increase that sack total number.

Senior defensive end Peyton Gryder will look to improve the Tribe's sack total this coming season. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Senior defensive end Peyton Gryder will look to improve the Tribe’s sack total this coming season. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
Rounding out the depth chart at the defensive end position will be rising sophomore Spencer Kleinrichert and rising junior Xavier Roscoe. Kleinrichert saw action in 11 games (2 starts) and finished with 20 tackles and a half sack, while Roscoe saw action in 11 games, finishing with 16 tackles and no sacks. Both of these players will need to put in strong offseasons developing their propensities for getting to the quarterback. Look for their sack totals to rise in 2016.

Conclusion

The Tribe defense has a lot of work to do. But the team has players ready to make the jump to the next level. This will be a young, hungry defensive unit next season that we’re hoping can take the next step to join the upper echelon of CAA defenses. It will be very interesting to see who’s winning the early position battles during the Spring game in a couple weeks, and we can’t wait to tune in and see what happens. The Green and Gold looks set for big things next season. LET’S GO TRIBE!!!

4 thoughts on “Spring Football: Things to Watch for on Defense

  1. Insightful. Like the level of detail, the strong writing, and also the methodical way the post is organized. Nicely done.

    Doug

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. While Tyler Claytor will certainly be missed on the D line, he was not a captain. Otherwise, well-written article.

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