Saturday’s Spring Game Preview: W&M Football

William & Mary winning the Capital Cup in 2016. Gotta love beating Richmond. [photo via WRIC]
Believe it or not, the Spring Game is less than a week away — it’s this Saturday at 1 PM! For your reference, the live stream will be available at Tribeathletics.com. We at the W&M Sports Blog couldn’t be more excited. Already well into the offseason, William & Mary is looking to build on its subpar 5-6 record from a year ago, starting with this year’s the Spring Game. Since last year’s end, the team has already experienced a couple major changes. Former Tribe Offensive Coordinator Kevin Rogers stepped down after the season, and three-star QB Shon Mitchell graduated high school early to start his W&M career early, just for Spring ball.

The Spring Game always seems to provide a great preview of fresh faces who will star on next year’s squad. It also serves as a great forum for position battles, and allows fans to see bright eyed and busy tailed freshmen for the first time. And this year is no different. Any way you look at it, the 2017 Spring Game will be a fun one. Below, we discuss and preview high-profile W&M positional groups to get you ready for this year’s game. Roll Tribe Roll.

Best Battle to Watch: Quarterbacks

In Contention: Tommy McKee (Jr.), Brandon Battle (So.), Dean Rotger (RFr.), Shon Mitchell (Fr.)

Up first, the most important position in all of football. Like it or not, the biggest positional battle of the offseason for your Green and Gold will be at the quarterback position. The good news for Tribe fans is that none of the players in contention will be a senior this year (i.e. whoever is selected will not be one and done). In fact, three of the four are underclassmen, and two are freshman. This bodes well for the future of Tribe Football, as the next QB will have at least 2 years at the helm, and potentially as many as 4 years as the starter if one of the star-studded freshmen is selected.

Brandon Battle is the tallest of the QB options, standing at 6’3″. He is lanky, however, checking in at just 190 pounds. Battle is known for his strong arm, which has often been displayed at practice and previous Spring Games. He has been in the offense for a couple years (again, a sophomore now), and poses a real ability to rush the ball. In fact, Battle rushed for an impressive 664 yards and 16 touchdowns throughout his high school career. But we’re not in high school any more. If Battle is to win this QB race, and it’s a real possibility, it will be due to his strong arm and previous knowledge of the William & Mary offense.

Which one of these players will lead the Tribe at the QB position in 2017? Top: Tommy McKee, Brandon Battle; Bottom: Dean Rotger, Shon Mitchell. [photos via tribeathletics.com]
Tommy McKee is the only player who has actual game appearance, though in very limited time. McKee saw action in a couple of games a year ago, only attempting one pass, which he completed for 7 yards. McKee has been the backup for QB Steve Cluley the past two seasons, and is certainly in play for the starting QB position in 2017. McKee is a smart QB who likely knows the offense better than any of the other contenders at this point. He has earned CAA Academic All-Conference Team honors for two consecutive seasons, so we know he’s a smart guy who has his act together both on and off the field. Beyond academics, McKee is also very athletic. In fact, he served as the backup punter at one point this past season. And as has been the case in the past, Coach Laycock tends to favor QBs that know the offense, and know it well, often looking to the most “senior” guy in the room to take over as the starter. For that reason alone, it will be interesting to see where McKee ends up this Fall.

Shon Mitchell is one of the highest rated recruits in all of FCS football and one of the top recruits W&M has snagged in quite some time, if ever. He is listed as the 25th best dual-threat QB in the 2017 class (which includes both FBS and FCS schools), and the 35th best overall player in VA — a state rich with talent at all positions. Although some are concerned about his size (listed at just 6’0″), this certainly didn’t stop him in high school, where Mitchell started all four years–including his freshman year. In fact, Mitchell finished his career as the Virginia High School League all-time leader for career passing yards (11,380), touchdown passes (123) and completions (747). Yes, you read that correctly. All time in Virginia. He also is a star in the classroom, finishing with an eye-popping 4.3 GPA in high school. Mitchell poses the talent and the smarts to be the starter in Williamsburg in 2017. The key for him will be learning the playbook. However, Shon did graduate high school early to hit the ground running, enrolling in courses at W&M for the Spring 2017 Semester. Therefore, Mitchell has all of Spring and Summer to get into the playbook, so he should be fine come summer camp. Watch out for this up and comer on Saturday.

Last but certainly not least, we have Dean Rotger. Rotger is also on the “smaller” side, checking in at 6’0″ 190 pounds. However, he is a trendy pick to surprise people and become the 2017 starter. The key with Rotger is that he has superior command of the offense when he is on the field; he is a very vocal player, and that’s a big plus for a QB who is often the face and leader of the team. Dean, like most (if not all) of our QBs, also had a very decorated high school career. Rotger was a four-year starter, and a two-time captain. He set school records for career passing yards (6,827) and touchdowns (83), as well as the single-season mark for passing yards (3,029). Rotger was a three time All-State selection and a four-time All-League choice. And oh yeah, he’s also pretty smart. Rotger was a Dean’s List student and member of the National Honor Society back in high school, at Our Lady of Lourdes (Poughkeepsie, NY). Akin to Mitchell, Rotger would potentially be a four-year starter for W&M if he were to win the 2017 QB battle. The difference between he and Mitchell is that Rotger redshirted his freshman year, so he has a big advantage, as he had an entire season to master the playbook. That may pay off for Rotger in the long run, but only time will tell.

Deepest Positional Group: DBs

Did you know that William & Mary LED THE NATION in passing yards allowed last season (that’s a good thing). The Tribe DB’s held opponents to just 154.2 yards per game passing, and just 7 passing TDs all season. In a league filled with some very good QBs, those are crazy good numbers. And while the Tribe lost key contributor and senior captain Trey Reed to graduation, the team will return the rest of its starters in 2017.

CB Aaron Swinton will lead a deep DB unit this Fall. [photo: tribeathletics.com]
This year’s defensive backfield will be led by senior CB Aaron Swinton and sophomore safety Corey Parker. Swinton had a monster year last year, leading the team with 4 interceptions to go with 1 forced fumbles, 8 pass break ups and 12 passes defensed. He will be the shut down corner for W&M this season. Behind him will be Corey Parker. Parker, only a freshman last season, exploded for 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, and 71 tackles (3rd on the team)–procuring a CAA Rookie of the Week honor along the way. Parker was all over the field for the Green and Gold last year. And that might actually be an understatement. Aside from Swinton and Parker, this unit poses great depth, as Raeshawn Smith and Denzel Dykes saw lots of action last year at the cornerback position. Both are capable of starting, and stepping up when needed. Beyond Parker at the safety spot, the unit includes Mike Barta, Miles Hayes, and Isaiah Laster. I wouldn’t want to throw on these boys this Fall. Watch out.

Most Talented Unit: Wide Receivers 

Deepest. Most talented. Hey–can we reward a tie to both the defensive backfield and wide receiver groups? This year, the WR group returns all of its starters from a year ago. In fact, of W&M’s top 7 receivers last season, 6 are returning. This unit is deep, talented, and has a lot of experience. It is led by seniors Daniel Kuzjak and speedster DeVonte Dedmon. Kuzjak, a former Spring Game star in his own right, appeared in just 9 games last season, but finished second on the team with 351 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. He is a possession receiver who has very reliable hands that can convert first downs for the Tribe. Move those chains. DeVonte Dedmon finished as the team’s leading receiver a year ago, racking up 533 yards and 5 touchdowns in 10 games for the Green and Gold. Dedmon is a lightning fast receiver who consistently burns opposing defensive backs. We’ll be looking for a big year out of the Williamsburg product in what will be his last year playing in his home town. Along with Kuzjak and Dedmon will be junior Jack Armstrong, who we think will start at slot receiver this year. Last season, Jack finished fourth on the team with 264 yards and 2 touchdowns.

William & Mary returns all three of their starters at WR from a year ago. [photos via tribeathletics.com]
Beyond the starters, W&M has experience in WRs Isaiah Kinder and Jalen Christian. Christian, a transfer from the University of South Carolina, has the talent to be a top receiver on this team, but has been bogged down by injuries. Kinder, a converted QB, has the talent and hands to increase his playing time this season. Beyond these 5 players, don’t be surprised to see sophomore Chris Conlan or redshirt freshman Anthony Mague receive significant playing time as well. Both are tall receivers (Conlan 6’4″, Mague 6’3″), who could potentially be big red zone threats for the Tribe this year. Overall, this unit features a very strong stable of starters, mixed with blossoming talents. Whoever ends up as the starting QB will have plenty of weapons to work with this Fall.

Unit with the most Question Marks: Running Back

With the graduation of superstar Kendell Anderson, W&M lost a superior talent. To make matters worse, freshman (now sophomore) star Albert Funderburke is still rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered last season; he will not play in this year’s Spring Game. In fact, it is not even known when Funderburke will return for the Tribe, but we are hoping it will be in time for the start of the season opener. If Funderburke returns in time for 2017, then this positional group isn’t as big of a question mark. If he does not return, the door is wide open and question marks remain.

Senior Jonathan Dunn certainly has the most experience. He was the backup last season when Kendell Anderson and Albert Funderburke went down with injuries. Dunn is a capable back who knows the offense and does very well in pass protection. He just doesn’t possess that breakout potential that keeps defenses on its toes. Sophomore Brehon Britt, a former 3-star recruit, is a good runner in-between the tackles, but has shown that he can be prone to fumbling issues. Noah Giles is just a freshman, and while he could break out of the scene like Funderburke did last year, we can’t bet on it. The last running back on the roster is Jaret Anderson, another freshman who redshirted during this past season who unfortunately did not see practice due to injury.

If Funderburke returns healthy, all is well. He will likely start, and Dunn will be the backup with Giles sprinkled in here and there. If Funderburke cannot go, it’ll be interesting to see who will start at the RB position to start the season. Remember, it is essential to have a good running back when a new quarterback is under center, as the Tribe will have in 2017. A good running game can force the defense to stack the box, allowing for less bodies in pass protection. A big bonus for any quarterbacks, especially first-time starters. Under Laycock, W&M has always been a well-rounded offensive team, flowing best with an even mix of the run and the pass. Question marks remain at the RB position, but this unit has the pieces in place to get the job done. Who will step up this season?

Something to think about: Who will be the Next OC? 

When Kevin Rogers retired this season, it took us by surprise. We figured that Laycock and Rogers would retire together. Now that Rogers is out as OC, it begs the question: who will be William & Mary’s next OC? Are they going to hire from within, or make an external hire? Or, will Jimmye himself be making the calls? Leave a comment and let us know who you think what W&M should do!

Conclusion

The Spring Game will be held this Saturday, April 15th, at 1 PM. We hope you all come out and take in some Tribe Football in the Burg! As you now know, there will be plenty to watch. But whatever happens, remember that it is early. Summer training camp hasn’t even happened yet, and players will continue to evolve as they work their way through the playbook. Cross your fingers for no injuries, and start cheering on your Green and Gold — it’s almost football season! LET’S GO TRIBE!!!

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