WILLIAMSBURG — Linebacker Airek Green knows that William and Mary leads the nation in scoring defense. He knows that he has a couple of interceptions and is one of the team's top tacklers. He volunteers that he's also tied for the team lead in missed tackles.
It's not a stat he's proud of, but it illustrates that he's more interested in numbers that are useful and motivational, and not merely self-aggrandizing.
"I'm just trying to make plays," Green says. "If it's 12 tackles a game or two, it doesn't matter. As long as we're in the right mode and our defense is rolling and our offense is playing well, if we get the win, I'm good."
The Tribe (4-2, 1-1 CAA) begins the conference gauntlet with a trip to No. 14 Maine (5-1, 2-0) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, the first of six consecutive games against ranked and upper-tier programs to finish the season.
Defense and the running game fuel William and Mary's start. The Tribe leads the Football Championship Subdivision in scoring defense (11.8 ppg), is seventh in total defense (284.2 ypg) and fourth in third-down conversion defense (28.6 pct). W&M has limited its first six opponents to just 13 first-half points.
The Tribe gave up 10 points in the fourth quarter in a 20-16 loss at CAA leader Villanova and 14 in the fourth last week to Penn, turning a game it controlled into a 27-14 win.
"I guess I'm too picky," Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock says, bringing up the Penn game. "We're leading the nation in scoring defense, and I'm still upset that we let them drive that thing and pick up two fourth downs in the fourth quarter. We can't let that happen."
Green reflects both the defense's effectiveness and areas in which it must improve. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior from Chester is the fourth-leading tackler, with 37 total stops. He has two interceptions, one a pick-six against Lafayette, and is tied for the team lead with six tackles-for-loss. He can blitz and get into opposing backfields, as well as drop into pass coverage and run with many backs and receivers.
"I think I'm playing better," Green says. "Last year, I didn't put up numbers like I wanted to. This year, a couple picks are nice. I need to be a little more solid in my tackling."
Green played as a true freshman, but missed the 2011 season for what he calls "personal reasons." He remained in school and could only support his teammates from a distance. When he returned, he had some catching up to do.
"I felt like I was trying to do a little too much, but at the same time I was behind," he says. "I wasn't as strong as I needed to be. I didn't really hit the weight room during my time off. That hindered my progression."
Still, Green started 10 of 11 games last season and finished fifth on the team in tackles (53), with five tackles-for-loss. A full season and a spring and summer paid off.
"He's playing pretty well," defensive coordinator Scott Boone says. "He's productive. He has really good instincts. He makes some good plays, maybe outside of the framework of the defense, because he has good instincts and he's a good athlete. He's gotten a lot stronger and a lot better focused on the little details of playing linebacker. That's really helped him."
Green and sophomore Luke Rhodes are every-down linebackers, as the Tribe plays a good deal of "nickel," or five-defensive back packages, that provide more speed and versatility in blitzes and pass coverage.
Both linebackers benefited from a year's experience and the defensive line play of tackles George Beerhalter, Jasper Coleman and Tyler Claytor, and end Mike Reilly.
"I think we're controlling the line of scrimmage much better," Laycock says. "We're forcing the action up front. I think that's why you see Luke and Airek having such good games and playing so well and playing so confidently, because they trust the guys up front to be able to create some disruptions — whether it's getting to the passer or causing the run to bubble."
Says Boone: "It's a huge advantage to the linebackers when the offensive linemen have to focus on the down people. Jasper and George and Claytor and those guys have been doing a great job inside, and they keep people off our linebackers. Our linebackers can run around and be productive."
The Tribe already has doubled last season's win total and controls its fate for postseason, and perhaps a conference title, albeit against a daunting schedule.
"From day one, we've always said, one week at a time," Green says. "Even last year, we did one week at a time. But it is kind of hard not to glance up and see who we have and when it is. … We just try to take each week one by one, focus on that team, because it's the next important game."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.