Tribe's Isaiah Stephens saving best for last

Contact Reporterdjohnson@dailypress.com

If you’re a stat wonk, William and Mary defensive tackle Isaiah Stephens doesn’t have much to offer. In three games this season, he has nine tackles — seventh on the team. He has two of the Tribe’s 14 quarterback sacks.

But, in something of an oxymoron, tackles don’t always make a lot of tackles. Allow W&M defensive end Matt Ahola, who leads the team with three sacks, to explain.

“He’s a 315-pound force in the middle who can move and is strong as an ox,” he said. “So you pretty much have to put two guys on him if you expect to block him. And when you put two guys on him, we’ve got one-on-ones across the board.

“It’s been helping the whole defense just having an anchor at nose guard. We say it all the time: You might not make the tackle, but you make the play.”

Stephens, a senior from Smyrna, Del., has always had the talent. In 2014, he became W&M’s first true freshman to start on the defensive line in 13 years. As a sophomore, he became a full-time starter. Last season, after making 21 solo tackles, he was named third-team All-CAA.

Going into Saturday’s CAA opener against Stony Brook at Zable Stadium, Stephens has made 27 consecutive starts. He’s in better shape now and, according to his coach, plays like it.

“He wasn’t always this strong, and he needed to get his weight under control to be consistent about the way he did things,” W&M coach Jimmye Laycock said. “He’s really matured and taken pride in the way he prepares and the way he plays.

“He’s grown up and become a very, very good player. And a consistently good player. Before, had had to learn about how to go more than two or three plays in a row. He’s gotten pretty good at that now.”

Stephens also feels more mentally sharp.

“I know the playbook now like the back of my hand,” he said. “I know where I’m supposed to be. I know my weaknesses so I can work on them. I’m not focused on learning the plays or ‘should I be here or there?’

“I can go out there and show young guys how to practice, how to play in the games. It’s a good feeling.”

Set to graduate next spring, Stephens is majoring in kinesiology and health sciences. He wants to attend nursing school — VCU, Old Dominion and Penn State are among those he’s considering.

“I want to go into nursing because I love helping people out,” he said. “My girlfriend is in nursing school at VCU, and she’s learning so much. It’s definitely a whirlwind.

“I want to be accepted into an accelerated program somewhere. It’s a great job. And there are always job openings.”

Stephens said he did a nursing internship with Brittany Ptachick, a nurse practitioner at Sentara Family Medicine Physicians in Williamsburg.

“I shadowed her, and that was a lot of fun,” he said. “I learned a lot of stuff. You take all these classes at William and Mary and you can actually apply what you learn to the real world.”

For now, Stephens has eight games (he hopes more) left in his college football career. And he’s determined to go out playing his best.

“Time definitely goes by fast,” he said. “You don’t think as a freshman, ‘This is going to be the quickest four years of my life,’ but it honestly is. This is my last guaranteed season to play football.

“It’s bittersweet, honestly. My games and practices are all numbered now. I’m leaving everything on the field.”

NOTES: Laycock said he’s hopeful left tackle Chris Durant and center Nick Wimmer, who have missed time with injuries, will be able to play Saturday against Stony Brook. Durant, a preseason All-CAA pick, has missed the last two games with a knee injury. … Tailback Albert Funderburke, who hasn’t played since tearing his ACL last September, is getting closer but is doubtful for this week. … In the last 24 seasons, W&M is averaging 8.7 victories after winning its conference opener.

Johnson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4649. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveJohnsonDP.

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