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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing Virginia football’s season opener against William and Mary

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Answers to our questions from bloggers who know the Tribe best

NCAA Football: William & Mary at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

With the return of the college football season, Streaking the Lawn is happy to revive our Behind Enemy Lines feature, where bloggers who cover that week’s opponent give us the rundown on who the Hoos are facing. This week we’re joined by Kyle and Davey Chadwick of the William and Mary Sports Blog. Our answers to their questions are over at WMSB; be sure to check them out as well!

STL: Jimmye Laycock has given Williamsburg the thing Charlottesville has been yearning for: coaching stability and frequent, sustained success. But 2016 saw the Tribe go 5-6. Was it a rebuilding year, or a portend of something more ominous?

WMSB: 2016 is a year of what could have been. In 2015, the Tribe went 9-4, were named CAA Regular Season Champions, and made it to the second round of the NCAA Playoffs. Second year starter QB Steve Cluley took a huge step, and the offense averaged 30.9 points and 411 yards of offense per game. The Tribe offense would then return every single starter sans one RB, a FB, and our center. They returned QB Steve Cluley, who would start his third year and just had a massive season a year prior. They returned their first team All-League RB in Kendell Anderson. Before the season started, the 2016 Tribe offense was being tagged as potentially one of the best offenses ever in W&M history, on paper. And yet the offense was anemic all year. They took a HUGE step back in 2016, averaging just 22.1 points and 342.9 yards per game.

To make matters worse, the Tribe defense didn’t perform to standard last season. William & Mary’s rushing defense was atrocious all season. The unit gave up an average of 207.4 yards rushing per game, an insane number. However, there is a bright spot: W&M’s passing defense was the top ranked unit in the FCS, giving up just 154.2 yards through the air per game. On top of a lack of rush defense, the unit managed just 10 sacks ALL YEAR. That is an average of less than a game, which is not even close to good enough to compete in the CAA, a league considered the class of the FCS.

It wasn’t a rebuilding year. W&M was picked top 10 in the preseason rankings of the FCS a season ago. Honestly, we here at the Blog have no idea what happened last season. It is one of those things that cannot be explained. All of the pieces were in place, but they just did not perform. Injuries to a couple key areas hurt, but there is no excuse for what happened last season. The good news is, this 2017 team doesn’t shy away when talking about last season. It left a sour taste in their mouth. This team has worked hard in the offseason and is ready to prove everybody wrong this year. I like the sound of that.

STL: You guys have suggested a strong preference for Shon Mitchell to grab the starting reins at QB. What do you think the odds are that he will, and what is the most likely offensive look we'll see if so?

WMSB: Just a quick take on Shon Mitchell. The kid is an absolute stud. He was a four-year starter who posted a 52-6 record, and finished his career as the Virginia High School League all-time leader for career passing yards (11,380), touchdown passes (123) and completions (747). Oh yeah, and he had a 4.3 GPA in high school. Recruited by big time D1 programs such as Virginia Tech, Shon chose W&M for the academics and the ability to play QB. He stands at just 6’0, but don’t let his height fool you. He was just the second player in W&M history to graduate high school early and join W&M for spring ball this past spring.

In regards to his odds of starting the UVA game, I would put it at 50/50. If you are talking about his odds of starting this season, I would put the odds at a 75% chance he will start the rest of the season. Jimmye Laycock loves to rely on experienced quarterbacks, especially in games against FBS teams. Junior Tommy McKee has been the backup to aforementioned QB Steve Cluley the past two seasons. Tommy is a smart QB that knows the offense very well. We would not be surprised to see Tommy start the UVA game initially. We think there is a chance Shon may get into the UVA game if W&M starts to get blown out, as the pressure will be off the true freshman. At the end of the day, Shon was just starting his senior year of high school a year ago. The idea that he can go into UVA and start just a year later is a daunting task.

While we think Shon likely won’t start against UVA, we think he will see action and eventually take over the starting job at some point this season. The kid is too darn talented to pass up the opportunity for him to start for 4 years. The future is bright in Williamsburg, but there will be growing pains. If he does play against UVA, look for the offense to be very conservative. W&M runs a pro-style offense, and the playbook is quite large. We wouldn’t expect Coach Laycock and newly minted OC D.J. Mangas to put too much on Shon’s shoulders in this one.

STL: Just as UVA will have to replace bell-cow Taquan Mizzell, W&M is replacing Kendell Anderson, who finished 2016 tenth nationally in rushing with more than 140 yards per game. Who picks up the slack? Is it another ball carrier, or is there a receiving playmaker who will become the focal point?

WMSB: What a career for Kendell Anderson. After star running back Mikal Abdul-Saboor went down with an injury against UVA back in 2015, Kendell broke onto the scene and absolutely tore up the FCS world. He finished that season with 1436 yards and 16 touchdowns. Last season, he battled injuries, but finished with 1077 and 9 touchdowns. It will definitely be hard to replace Kendell Anderson.

That being said, W&M had a breakout star emerging last season in freshman Albert Funderburke. In just 4 games as a backup (before injury), Funderburke rushed for 298 yards and 4 touchdowns. He averaged an insane 7.5 yards per carry, and was tearing up opposing defenses. The unfortunate part is that he tore his ACL in the beginning of last season, and we are unsure whether he will suit up against UVA. Eventually when he returns, we expect Funderburke to pick up the slack of Kendell. In this game, W&M will have to rely on two rookie rushers in freshman Noah Giles and Jaret Anderson. Considering UVA has a strong linebacking corps, W&M may have a hard time finding holes on Saturday.

Though it may be difficult to rush, W&M does return its top 5 WR’s from a season ago, one of which is a perennial All-League player in DeVonte Dedmon. You may remember DeVonte Dedmon, because the last time he played UVA he went off for 7 catches, 80 yards, and 2 touchdowns, including an opening drive 41-yard miraculous catch for a TD to start the game. Now a senior, Dedmon looks to use his speed and blow by defenders this year, as he is used to doing. Along with Dedmon, look for two team All-League selection and captain TE Andrew Caskin to play a large role in this one. A new QB typically uses their TE as a safety net, and luckily for the Tribe, they have one of the best in the CAA in Caskin. Like Dedmon, Caskin had a nice game against UVA two seasons ago, with 3 catches for 43 yards and a touchdown.

STL: The Tribe defense wasn't strong in pass rushing last year, tallying only 10 sacks for the season. But the defense did register 12 interceptions. What's the defensive scheme and philosophy, and which players must perform to make it work?

WMSB: Last season was abysmal in terms of a pass rush. W&M lost senior DE Peyton Gryder early in the season, and that hurt. But there is no excuse for 10 sacks. Not to mention, this unit gave up over 200 yards a game on the ground. The Tribe runs a 4-3 defense. The defense will be as good as the front seven this year. The D line is a mix of experience and young talent. DE and senior captain Matt Ahola, a three-year starter, will look to put the pressure on Benkert on Saturday. The line also features a stalwart starter in Isaiah Stephens, who is an absolute load at 310 pounds and has started all four years. He will look to fill the holes and stop UVA’s rush game. The line also features DE Gavin Johnson, who was W&M’s first true freshman to play DE since 2002. Certainly a remarkable feat. Look for Gavin to make an impact on Saturday. For the linebacking corps, we love sophomores Arman Jones and Nate Adkins. Arman Jones was the first true freshman LB to start since 2010, and he did not disappoint. He led W&M in sacks last season, and is great in coverage as well as against the run. Nate Adkins is an absolute monster, and just racks up the tackles. A starter last season as a redshirt freshman, he totaled 74 tackles, which was second on the team.

The W&M secondary is for real. Senior Captain Aaron Swinton is a talented shutdown cornerback. He and Raeshawn Smith make a dynamic 1-2 combo at the corner position. William and Mary’s secondary ranked 1st in the country for passing yards, giving up just 154 yards a game. The unit is talented, deep, and looks to continue its success against UVA.

As you can see, this unit has the potential to be a very big bright spot for the Tribe. The secondary is very talented; we aren’t worried about them. The front 7 is young, but we are hoping that the right players make the next step and elevate their game to another level. UVA will be a great test for a unit that looks to make improvements upon last season. While the offense may struggle, we are hoping the defense puts up a good fight against UVA on Saturday.

STL: The green and gold has left Scott Stadium with a win in recent memory, so we'll forego any requests for gameday predictions. So instead, what's your confidence level for the season as a whole? And which games get the big red circle on the schedule?

WMSB: This year is one of the most difficult seasons to predict for W&M. The team has tons of potential, but also has key positions that are unproven. The defense is young but very talented. Players such as safety Corey Parker, CBs Aaron Swinton/ Raeshawn Smith, and LBs Arman Jones and Nate Adkins are key names to look for on Saturday. The offense is deep on the outside but unproven at the QB and RB positions. If everything clicks, and this team plays to its potential, it could mean a 7-win season and an FCS playoff berth for the Tribe. If the team falters and doesn’t live up to its potential, they could win 4 games. In our preseason predictions, we picked them at 6-5. The QB question mark is a problem, and we predict that whoever starts at QB will have some growing pains that will cost the Tribe a couple games they may have otherwise won.