Both lines and the defensive secondary will feature some new faces. Connor Mewbourne, a redshirt freshman from Virginia Beach, is in the mix to replace three-year starter Jeremy Hensley at center. D.J. Morrell, a 6-6, 300-pound lineman from Connecticut, had to sit out last season after transferring in from junior college due to an NCAA paperwork issue. Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Mike Justice technically isn't a newcomer, but he sat out 2011 after playing five games as a true freshman because of injuries. Safety Andre Simmons transferred in from Vanderbilt after coaches were satisfied that his arrest for burglary was an aberration. Cornerback T.J. Cowart is healthy after missing the last nine games a year ago with a wrist injury. Cornerback Reggie Owens played only one game last season and should figure into the rotation. Linebacker Caleb Taylor, a Phoebus grad, transferred in from Virginia and is eligible immediately. Defensive end Preston Smith will get the opportunity to be an every-down player after a good spring.
When the head coach fires the defensive coordinator three days after a tremendously successful season that includes a playoff appearance, it's not hard to figure that the new guy is under the microscope. Bill Dee is no stranger to football, or pressure, but he's learning about elite Division I FCS football on the fly. Dee, the architect of the Phoebus High dynasty, had just concluded his first year at Old Dominion, as offensive line coach, when Wilder tabbed him to replace Andy Rondeau last December. Dee didn't so much overhaul the defense as simplify it. Points of emphasis were pursuit and tackling; more aggression and wrapping up, less reading and thinking. Players seem to have taken to the approach thus far. After Dee left Phoebus in 2008, he spent the next two years at Christopher Newport. It'll be interesting to watch him match wits against veteran coaches and guys he's admired, such as Jimmye Laycock and Zbig Kepa at W&M, Mickey Matthews and Jeff Durden at JMU, Andy Talley and OC Sam Venuto at Villanova and K.C. Keeler at Delaware.
BEST/WORST CASE SCENARIO
Best case: Heinicke plays like, well, Heinicke. The running backs and receivers remain healthy. The offensive line gels. Special teams continue to create headaches, flip the field and result in more offensive possessions. The defense improves incrementally. Shoot, just a 15-percent improvement would reduce opponents' scoring to under 24 points per game and fewer than 330 yards per game. That would take some heat off of the offense to win shootouts. Such a formula will get them nine wins, which would guarantee a playoff berth. Worst case: What happened in the second quarter of the UMass game. When three-year starting QB Thomas DeMarco went down with an ankle injury, it left the position in the hands of an untested rookie. If Heinicke were to get hurt, it's hard to imagine his backup pulling off a similar run. The O-line is erratic, which will hurt the run game more than the Monarchs' quick passing attack. The D-line gets run on. ODU gets everyone's best shot and loses a couple of games it shouldn't.
WILLIAM AND MARY
HOW TO GET TO POSTSEASON
William and Mary made the playoffs two of the previous three years, so there are coaches, and players, who know what's required. Knowing and doing, however, are horses of a different stripe. First order of business is identifying a consistent, productive quarterback and a couple of playmakers at wide receiver. Unlike any number of Jimmye Laycock's previous teams, offense was the issue for last year's 5-6, bottom-half squad. The closest thing to a star player the Tribe has is cornerback B.W. Webb, but he can be marginalized. Without a transcendent figure, a truly collective effort is needed. The offense must average at least 24 points per game. Kicker Drake Kuhn must extend his range a bit and improve his accuracy. The defense must force a few more turnovers and the team record a positive turnover margin. Details and as few as three or four plays per game can make the difference.
KEY SCHEDULE STRETCH
The Towson-Delaware exacta in mid-September will provide an early glimpse into the Tribe's conference, and national, prospects. But given the strength of the league and the fact that nobody is going unscathed, the four-game stretch of James Madison, Maine, New Hampshire and Old Dominion, from mid-October to mid-November, is the test. All four teams made the playoffs last year. JMU, New Hampshire and ODU are on the road, with only Maine at home. And don't think it escaped the Black Bears, playoff quarterfinalists last year, that they're the Tribe's homecoming opponent. Fortunately, the Tribe gets a bye after the JMU game and before the three-week gauntlet. JMU and Old Dominion present challenges in terms of atmosphere and talent. Both are among the national leaders in attendance, with JMU's year-old expanded stadium an FCS showplace. New Hampshire gets the Tribe at home, though Sean McDonnell hasn't beaten W&M in nine tries. Law of averages?
Several areas, but we'll go with the defensive secondary. Senior cornerback B.W. Webb (Warwick) is first-team All-CAA and one of the best in FCS. He has 37 starts, by far the most of any Tribe player. There's depth and talent at safety with senior Brian Thompson, junior Jerome Couplin III and sophomore Ivan Tagoe. Thompson was second-team all-conference at strong safety in 2011, with 68 tackles. Couplin started seven games at free safety last season, with 47 tackles. Tagoe played 10 games last year and started against ODU. Those guys, along with underclassmen DeAndre Houston-Carson and Jesse McNeal III, give defensive coordinator Scott Boone and new secondary coach Tom Clark, the Tribe's former defensive coordinator, much flexibility. Grouped with a veteran bunch at linebacker, W&M's back seven is in good shape.
Quarterback and wide receiver. The Tribe's at-times anemic passing attack last season was due to injuries and inconsistency at both positions. Passing game issues in the Tribe's system are as often a result of a receiver missing a read as a quarterback missing a throw. W&M experienced plenty of both. The QB battle likely comes down to upperclassmen Brent Caprio and Michael Graham. Both started games last season. Graham set himself apart in the middle of the season until a broken finger shelved him. Caprio finally developed some comfort and traction at the end of the season. Notably, he led the game-winning, last-second drive at Richmond in the season finale. At receiver, talented Ryan Moody will try to remain healthy for an entire season. Sophomore Tre McBride tries to get his decision making and route running to catch up to his physical gifts. Behind them, there is little experience, but much opportunity.
Redshirt freshman DeAndre Houston-Carson will line up at cornerback opposite Webb, guaranteeing that he will see more throws than his all-conference compadre. Houston-Carson, 6-1 and 190 pounds, was on the travel squad all last season, but didn't play a snap. Coaches and players have touted him since he arrived on campus. He was a two-way, all-district player from Woodford and Massaponax High. Redshirt freshman Luke Rhodes could see action at outside linebacker, where he is penciled in behind starter Airek Green. Rhodes, 6-2 and 230 pounds, was a two-time 3A all-state pick in Pennsylvania. Redshirt freshman Jared Templeton could figure into the rotation at defensive tackle. The coaches like redshirt freshman safety Jared Velasquez from Fairfax, but he'll have a hard time getting on the field with the folks in front of him. He could see time as a punt returner. The Tribe typically has few freshmen or redshirt freshmen as every-down players, though wide receiver Tre McBride played last season as a true freshman — as much a reflection of depth at wide receiver as his ability.
Longtime offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Zbig Kepa has much work ahead. He must prepare a relatively untested group of receivers, and formulate game plans and call plays tailored to quarterbacks with their own skill sets. Kepa, in his 29th season, has just one proven receiver in Ryan Moody, though Moody (6 games, 10 catches last season) has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. Gifted sophomore Tre McBride (14 catches) may have played last season before he was ready. Senior backups Joey Brady and C.J. Thomas had two catches between them in 2011. In the Tribe's system, playing receiver is as much mental as physical, with receivers expected to make adjustments based on coverages and play calls. At quarterback, Brent Caprio and Michael Graham have different strengths. Neither separated himself in the spring, meaning summer camp performance and evaluations are critical. Though to be fair, at least three quarterbacks have played significant snaps each of the past two seasons because of injury and inconsistency — further complicating Kepa's life.
BEST/WORST CASE SCENARIO