WILLIAMSBURG — Jerome Couplin asks for only one gift for his birthday. He will have a say in whether he gets it, as will several dozen of his William and Mary teammates.
Couplin turns 22 on Saturday, when the Tribe travels to West Virginia in the season opener for both teams (noon) and W&M's annual matchup against a major college opponent.
"As long as we can keep the game within reach, as a defense, we have to do our job and keep as (few) points as possible on the board," said Couplin, the Tribe's all-conference free safety. "The less their offense is on the field, the better it is. The longer they're on the field, it'll be a problem. It's going to be a challenge."
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Couplin and his mates will have their hands full against a West Virginia offense that averaged 39.5 points and 502 yards per game last season. Playmakers Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are gone, but W&M anticipates replacements with similar abilities, running coach Dana Holgorsen's spread offense.
The Tribe must deal with the superior depth and perhaps the transcendent athletes that characterize matchups between FCS and FBS teams.
"They have more depth, so they can roll fresher legs in and out during the game," Couplin said. "They can have more people on special teams, whereas us, we have a lot of guys who might be starting but playing on special teams as well. We just have to be as best conditioned as we can be, so we can last all four quarters."
Couplin isn't likely to be overmatched, athletically. A rangy 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, with the wingspan of someone who stands 7-1 and basketball hops, he is both smart and physical. He led W&M in unassisted tackles (53) and total stops (91) on the way to being named third-team all-conference in 2012. He was voted preseason first-team all-league.
"It's really fun to coach Jerome," Tribe defensive backs coach Tom Clark said. "He's obviously a talented, gifted football player, but he's as intelligent a guy as I've had in my career in the secondary. He sees it like a coach. He anticipates adjustments and problems and he's a very good communicator.
"He's really a prototype free safety. He has the ball skills, has the ability to come up and tackle in the alley and he has kind of the field general, quarterback-on-defense quality that you want."
The Tribe also enters Saturday's game with the knowledge that it can compete with FBS opponents, regardless of outside expectations. Last year, W&M was a couple of plays from defeating Maryland, in a 7-6 loss. Couplin and his fifth-year teammates were freshmen when the Tribe won at Virginia 26-14 in 2009.
"You just look at it as, we're always going into these games as the underdog," Couplin said. "We could probably be the No. 1 team in the nation and they'd probably still have the FCS team as the underdog. We have to go in with the mindset that we're a solid team, we're a good team, we're athletes as well. Just because we might not be BCS, that doesn't mean we can't play. I think that's the one big thing we try to show: Small schools can play, as well."
Couplin takes his cue from former Tribe teammate B.W. Webb, an All-American cornerback drafted in the fourth round by the Dallas Cowboys last spring.
"That's what B.W. tells me all the time," Couplin said. "His whole thing, being in the NFL now, is showing that just because you went to a small school doesn't mean you can't play football."
The Tribe will look for cracks against a West Virginia defense that allowed 38.1 points and 473 yards per game, and lost six of its past eight games.
But as Tribe head coach Jimmye Laycock said: that was last year.
"We're not Baylor, we're not Syracuse, we're not Oklahoma, we're not Kansas State," he said, listing teams that torched the Mountaineers.
"We need to force some turnovers on their end of the field, where we can have a short field," Laycock said. "Having short fields is big. For us to take it consistently on 12-play, 80-yard drives against a team like West Virginia, that's a lot to ask. We've got to be smart about how we're doing it, unless we pop a play here or there. … We've got to play pretty close to mistake-free and we hope we can force some stuff from them."
William and Mary's offense must be efficient when opportunities arise and generate enough first downs to give the defense a rest. The Tribe's defense certainly will give up yards, but it can't surrender points.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we're going to stop that offense," Couplin said. "Look at them last year, some games it was basketball scores. You watch on film and you say, 'Wow, this score is ridiculous; is anybody playing defense?' We just have to do our jobs, leverage the ball where we expect it to go and contain it as best we can."