Believe it or not, W&M Tribe Football is already in full swing, preparing for the 2018 season with the Spring Game right around the corner (it’s this Saturday, in fact). The team has much to prove this year, coming off an abysmal season in which the team finished with a miserable 2-9 (0-8 CAA) record, dropping its final 8 games of the season. It was the Tribe’s worst year since 2012 (at least), and the first time in Jimmye Laycock’s 37-year career that the Green and Gold did not register a conference win.
In fact, the last time W&M “notched” 0 wins in conference play was way back in 1956 (yes, that date was significant enough to bold), when W&M finished 0-5 in the Southeren Conference under former W&M Head Coach Jack Freeman, 61 years ago. We should note that W&M was not aligned to a conference from 1977-1992, as the team was listed as an “Independent” during those years. Even still, 61 years is a very significant amount of time.
With that in mind, there’s a lot to look for during this year’s Spring Game. Below, we detail our 5 things to watch for this Saturday. Roll Tribe Roll.
1. Will someone take over at Quarterback?
The number one problem with the team last year was inconsistent quarterback play. It was especially bad given the fact that the quarterback position is the most important one in the sport — so you can begin to see why the Tribe finished with 0 conference wins if you understand this alone. The Tribe started 3 different quarterbacks last season, always seemingly looking to find someone who would grab ahold of the starting gig; it really seemed as though there were a different QB under center each week. The revolving door at the position hurt the passing game’s consistency and greatly hindered receivers’ rapport with whoever started at QB. This year, the Tribe loses Tommy McKee to graduation, but retains Shon Mitchell, Brandon Battle, Ted Hefter, and Dean Rotger.
Of the four, Mitchell and Battle were the only ones that saw game action last season — so one would have to figure that they are the front-runners for the job this season. The highly touted true freshman Mitchell appeared in 3 games last year, throwing for an unimpressive 140 yards, 0 TDs, and 3 INTs. Battle also played in 3 games, faring slightly better as he threw for 170 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs. Neither posted impressive numbers, so perhaps last year’s Spring Game hero Ted Hefter will make some noise this offseason. Dean Rotger may also turn some heads. But early on, we predict that either Mitchell or Battle will eventually win the starting job — but at this point, even that is far from a done deal. Any way you slice it, we’re just happy that last season is finally over, and we can start with a clean slate in 2018.
2. How will the Offensive Line replace Hilland & Durant?
Words cannot describe how greatly the Tribe will miss soon-to-be W&M alums Connor Hilland and Chris Durant along the offensive line. Both of them were four year starters, anchoring the left side of the line for what feels like an eternity (in a good way). Durant, at left tackle, received All-CAA honors last season for the third consecutive year. Hilland, a senior captain, was a monster at left guard, earning First Team All-CAA honors for his efforts, which marked the second consecutive season he was chosen to the All-CAA team.
The Tribe will certainly have gargantuan holes to fill at these two positions, as this side of the line is inevitably charged with protecting a right-handed QB’s blind side. One thing is for certain: whoever steps in has very big big shoes to fill — as the old saying goes, “Games are won in the trenches.” We will see who stands up to the challenge this year, and the Spring Game will be our first official look at which players will step into the role.
3. Can DeVonte Dedmon spark the Tribe offense?
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the offseason was finding out that DeVonte Dedmon will now return for another year of football in Williamsburg. As you might recall, Dedmon sustained an injury in the first game of the season last year against UVA. Following a formal NCAA process, Dedmon was granted another year/medical redshirt to play in his 5th year with the Tribe. And Tribe fans everywhere rejoiced. Two years ago, in what was his junior season, Dedmon led the team in receiving yards, finishing with 533 yards and 5 touchdowns.
He also led the team in receiving yards during his sophomore yea, when he finished with 588 yards and 8 touchdowns. Dedmon is a smaller but absolutely electrifying receiver that can create a home run-type play any time he touches the ball. That is especially relevant, given that Tribe’s longest reception last season went for just 39-yards on a catch made by Jack Armstrong. Whoever steps in at QB will need to find Dedmon early, and find him often; he is the unquestioned #1 receiver on the team this year, and we couldn’t be happier that he’s back on the team.
4. Is the LB group the strongest unit on the team?
This season, the linebacker unit might just be the best position group for the Green and Gold. The Tribe returns all three starters from last year, as these three linebackers finished as 3 of the top 4 tacklers on the team last season, combining for an insane 244 tackles. Nate Atkins seems to be one of the undisputed leaders of this year’s defense, leading the way from the mike/insider linebacker position. Last season, Atkins led the team with 96 tackles, and added 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 INT, and 2 forced fumbles. Fellow backer Josh Dulaney is also a stat sheet stuffer, who has proven his worth wreaking havoc on opponents’ backfields. In fact, Dulaney finished third on the team last season with 76 tackles, while notching 12 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. Rounding out the starting group is junior Arman Jones, who has played (and started) at linebacker since he was a true freshman. Last season, Jones finished fourth on the team with 72 tackles, and added 5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks.
To hit home just how good this unit is, and how far the team has come: in 2016 (two seasons ago), W&M had one of the worst run defenses in recent memory. In that season, the team gave up an average of 207.4 rushing yards per game, while also allowing 23 rushing TDs. This past season, W&M improved drastically on those numbers, thanks to the combined efforts of Atkins, Dulaney, and Jones. Last season, W&M gave up just 128 yards per game on the ground, an improvement of nearly 80 yards per game over the previous season. Now a year older, we are excited to see what this group can do in 2018.
5. How will the Tribe backfield shake out?
Last season, W&M utilized four primary ball carriers at varying points throughout the season. While one of them was the quarterback, Tommy McKee, the others were running backs Nate Evans, Albert Funderburke, and Noah Giles. Of this group, true freshman Nate Evans impressed the most last season. What Evans lacks in size, he makes for up in speed and elusiveness, ending the season as the number one back on the team with 476 rushing yards on 119 (4.0 average) and 3 touchdowns. He also added 160 yards receiving on 20 catches — proving his dual-threat abilities. We think that Evans’ pass catching ability gives him the early edge over the other two backs at this point in the offseason, but we can’t forget about our guy Albert Funderburke.
Funderburke exploded onto the scene two years ago in what was his redshirt freshman year, proving himself as a home run hitter who can break a big run to the end zone from anywhere on the field. But that was before he went down with a major knee injury that same year. It was pretty bad, as some thought he might not even make it back to a football field. But Funderburke recovered, ultimately coming back to the Tribe mid-season last year, finishing with 2o7 yards rushing on 56 carries (3.7 average).
If Funderburke can get back to his freshman year form, there is no doubt he can and will be the starter in the Fall. But lets not forget our other back: Noah Giles is a wild card candidate for the starting running back role this year. In limited time, Giles finished with 339 yards on 55 carries (6.2 average) and 2 touchdowns. He also had the longest rush of the season, a gain of 66 yards. Coach Laycock and company will likely employ multiple running backs this season (perhaps a “running back by committee”), as the team tends to do, but we are curious to see who will be the starter for the Tribe in game 1; the Spring Game this Saturday may provide some early hints about that starting rotation.
Bonus: How does W&M’s kicking/punting game look?
An often overlooked aspect of the game is special teams, and more specifically, the kicking game. Punters have the ability to quite literally flip the field, directly impacting their own team’s defense and how far the opposing team’s offense has to go to score points. In the same vein, kickers are frequently the highest scoring members of any team, contributing the most points of any player year after year. It’s hard to explain just how important these positions continue to be to the game today.
Last year, the W&M kicking/punting game left us asking for more. True freshman punter Will Michael played just about as well as any true freshman could in that position, finishing the year averaging 37.7 yards per punt on 52 kicks. This average will need to go up, as the team can’t afford to give opposing teams free yards each and every drive. Sophomore kicker Kris Hooper led the team in scoring last year with 43 points, but only connected on 9 of 16 field goal attempts (56.25%). With that being said, Tribe fans will fondly remember former W&M kicker John Carpenter‘s drastic improvement throughout his time at W&M — so we aren’t all too concerned about Michael and Hooper. But we’ll have to wait and see just how far they’ve come since last season in this year’s Spring Game.
Spring Game Details
Time: Saturday, 1:30 PM
Location: Zable Stadium (Williamsburg, VA)
Watch: Tribe TV — find the link here!