Oct 19 / Rob

Q&A With The Guys From W&M Sports Blog

JMU heads to Williamsburg this weekend for game against William & Mary. We figured there were no better people to get us to speed on the 2017 Tribe than our friends from W&M Sports Blog. We answered some questions about the better team for them as well. You can read those here. That’s enough of an intro. Let’s get on with it.

How’s new Zable?! What’s the buzz among fans about the new pad? 
Since the venue opened in 1935, and all the way up until 2015, good ole Zable Stadium hadn’t really changed much. That is, until last season. And when we say it hadn’t changed, it truly had not changed. You’d think you were transported back to the 40s when watching a game there. And as much as we love history at William & Mary, to say it was time for an update would truly be an understatement. So after playing the 2015 season in a stadium under construction, “New Zable” officially opened its doors for last year’s 2016 Season Opener. And boy, has it been well received. The $22 million upgrade includes, among other things, an entirely new upper deck seating section, fully loaded suite boxes, a brand new turf field, an incredible press box with picturesque views, an updated sound system, updated restrooms, and various safety and accessibility upgrades. The new and improved Zable Stadium, coupled with the $11 million Laycock Center shows the school’s continued commitment to the sport, and makes W&M that much harder for recruits to ignore. Even if you’re sitting in the away section this Saturday, make sure to venture over to the home bench’s side to grab some concessions and check out our new digs.

What do you really make of this Tribe team? Kind of a weird schedule in that W&M has basically won the games they were supposed to (Bucknell, NSU), hung around with UVa and lost to two CAA teams (Stony Brook and Elon) that aren’t sexy names but may be JMU’s real challengers for the title this year and the CAA’s other playoff participants. Only the Delaware debacle stands out and even we know that’s a good defense. In other words, do you really know if W&M is good or bad yet?
Let’s not mince words. The Tribe is 2-4 (0-3 CAA). Beyond the record, and to truly answer the question, you have to analyze this team on both sides of the ball. Because when you do, you realize there are two very different stories currently being written. Let’s start with the W&M defense. Don’t let team’s overall record fool you, defensively, this team is very strong. The Green and Gold currently ranks #4 in total defense in the CAA, #2 in pass defense, and #6 in rush defense. This unit has single-handedly kept the Tribe in games this season, forcing turnovers, getting to opposing team’s quarterbacks, and forcing several 3 and outs.
But at the end of the day, we all know what the most important position in football is: quarterback. And in that area, it’s been a wild ride for the Tribe so far this season. Over the offseason, there was a heated quarterback battle all summer between several QBs — 5 players had legitimate chances. But at the end of the summer, only three quarterbacks were considered: junior Tommy McKee, sophomore Brandon Battle, and true freshman Shon Mitchell. Ultimately, experience won out, as Jimmye Laycock unsurprisingly selected junior Tommy McKee (some would argue that this was a surprising pick). Through the first 4.5 games of the season, McKee averaged a mere 111.6 passing yards per game, while throwing for 5 TDs and 4 INT. He never really showed the ability to throw the ball accurately in a pass-heavy Laycock-directed offense. When CAA play started, this issue was magnified, as McKee struggled to get anything going against Stony Brook until it was too late. Similarly, he was pulled against Elon in favor of Brandon Battle, what turned out to be another close, but losing effort. Ultimately, inconsistent play at the most important position in football has been the achilles heel of this year’s team. And you see the results in our record. Laycock’s solution? In steps true freshman Shon Mitchell.

Tell us about Shon Mitchell. How real is the hype for the QB phenom? 
If you don’t know the name Shon Mitchell now, you’re forgiven. But don’t forget it moving forward. He is the future of the William & Mary offense, and comes to Williamsburg as perhaps the school’s most highly touted recruit in at least four decades (coinciding with Laycock’s W&M head coaching tenure, currently in his 38th season). Hailing from Virginia’s famed “757” football hotbed, Mitchell destroyed passing records at Oscar Smith High School, finishing his career as the Virginia High School League’s all-time leader in career passing yards (11,380), touchdown passes (123), and completions (747). As a high school junior, Shon held offers from William & Mary, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Navy, Charlotte, while also receiving strong interest from Nebraska (where his father played football). He ultimately chose William & Mary. I can hear collective JMU nation yelling, “WHY?!”
Rather than trying to answer that question ourselves, we’ll let Shon tell his side of the story with a quote we dug up from a Hero Sports article, “Everything they have to offer fits me perfectly, I take pride in my education and William & Mary has one of the best education systems around. I have a great relationship with [now-former W&M Offensive Coordinator] (Kevin) Rogers. The staff keeps everything honest and open with me. I know that I am one of their top priorities. I love their style of offense; I believe that it fits me perfectly and it would give me a good opportunity to make it at the next level…I have no doubt that the competition in the CAA is top tier as the CAA is one of the best conferences in the nation at the FCS level. I think Coach Laycock is one of the best at what he does, and I have nothing but the highest respect for him.”
In somewhat of a surprise move last week, but to the delight of many Tribe fans, Shon started his first collegiate game on the road against Delaware. As is to be expected from a quarterback who was playing against high schoolers just last year, Mitchell had his ups and downs, finishing 18/36 for 101 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT. It’s safe to say that W&M’s offense is evolving. What you’ll see on Saturday is the beginning of the next four years of an offense that we would say has an incredibly high ceiling. There will certainly be growing pains with Shon this season, but our mouths are watering at the thought of him under center for four years in Williamsburg. The future is bright for this team.
Aside from quarterback, who are the Offensive players JMU should watch out for this coming week?
Last season, then-freshman running back Albert Funderburke ran like a man possessed through four games. He ranked 17th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (4), while averaging 73.5 rushing yards per game and an insane 7.5 yards per carry. “Give him an inch of daylight, and he’ll take a mile” was the mantra; the home run hitting running back really was fun to watch. That was, until he suffered a horrific season-ending knee injury, which included the tearing of his ACL/MCL/PCL. He would sit out the rest of last season, and the first several games of this season before returning two games ago against Elon. Through two games, Funderburke has turned in meager returns, posting just 66 yards with a 3.7 yards per carry average. Look for him to get better each and every game moving forward this season, and don’t be surprised if #26 is able to get going against JMU this Saturday.
In true W&M fashion, always seemingly sporting a stud running back, true freshman Nate Evans absolutely stole the show in Funderburke’s absence. You almost wouldn’t know that the team was missing its star running back from a season ago. Through 5 games this year, the former-Navy commit Evans boasts 309 rushing yards (4.8 average), and 2 touchdowns — good enough to rank #5 in the CAA in rushing, one spot behind JMU’s Trai Sharp. But Evans doesn’t only run the ball, he can receive as well. He’s currently third on the team in receiving, with 8 catches for 87 yards (10.9 average). A true dual-threat back, look to see plenty of Evans on Saturday.

In the same vein, who are some Defensive players that JMU will need to keep an eye on this week?
Like we said, this defense is good. And did we mention they’re young? Sophomore linebacker Nate Atkins leads the way with 52 total tackles (6th in the CAA), including 3 TFL and 2 sacks. After a breakout season last year, sophomore safety Corey Parker is second on the team in total tackles with 39, including 2 passes defended. And for a team that didn’t get to the quarterback last season, the team surely has gotten to opposing QBs so far this season. Currently, W&M ranks #2 in the CAA in sacks — with 20 sacks through 6 games. Four, count ’em, four Tribe players have 3 or more sacks so far this season: LB Josh Dulaney, DT Isaiah Stephens, DE Matt Ahola, and DT Bill Murray. The defensive line is scary, and will get after JMU’s Bryan Schor on Saturday. You can bet that if Schor struggles this weekend, it will be due in large part to sustained QB pressure.

W&M’s Jimmye Laycock is a legend. But any chance the natives are getting restless at all?
Of course, some are always restless. But you won’t see any of that from us. The handicaps facing William & Mary head coaches, across all of our sports, are vast. It’s not to say that other schools don’t have academic standards, because they do. It’s just that W&M’s academic standards don’t drop much, if at all, for its athletes. Players must be true scholar athletes, as well as exemplar citizens off the field. If you ever wonder why William & Mary has a relatively high number of players and coaches in the NFL (Head Coaches Mike Tomlin and Sean McDermott immediately come to mind), it’s due to the caliber of student athlete that the school is able to attract and recruit. For Laycock to not only have survived, but thrived to a great extent (245–183–2 overall record), in this environment speaks volumes to both his coaching and recruiting abilities.
We do think that perhaps a big part of the decision to move to true freshman Shon Mitchell at quarterback is due to the fact that Laycock has become slightly more aware of his age at this point in his career. In his 38th season at the helm, Laycock is now 69 years old. If he stays all four years, assuming Shon remains the starter and performs well, Laycock will be 73 years old when Mitchell graduates. With such a strong prospect such as Mitchell, we’re betting this may be Laycock’s last go at it before contemplating retirement. And we would like nothing more than to see Jimmye make it to the promised land — crossing the FCS semifinal threshold for the first time in his career and bringing a Championship back to the ‘Burg. It would be a fitting end to a truly historic, hall of fame career. But in the meantime, we like Jimmye right where he is. In Williamsburg, with his William & Mary Tribe.
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