William and Mary's most efficient defensive unit is about to get the first of a few major tests as the Tribe tries to remain in contention for an FCS playoffs berth.
William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock acknowledges sometimes statistics can be misleading. In this case, the Tribe's secondary has been among the best in the Colonial Athletic Association and country this season. William and Mary ranks second (154.1) in the league in passing yards allowed per game, which puts it fourth nationally, and the Tribe has secured an interception in all but one game this season.
On Saturday at Zable Stadium against Maine (4-3, 3-1 CAA), the Tribe (3-4, 1-3) welcomes the conference's third-best passing attack. In two weeks, William and Mary gets the second-best at Towson before closing out the season at home against the league's top passing offense, Richmond.
Maine senior quarterback Dan Collins is second (214.6) in passing yards per game behind Richmond's Kyle Lauletta, the CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
"They're going to throw the ball deep," William and Mary cornerbacks coach Marvin Clecidor said of Maine, a winner of four straight. "This is a huge challenge for us. Maine's wide receivers are very good. They excel in deep-ball situations. Their quarterback is very accurate. He'll throw the ball up where usually only the receivers will have a chance to get the ball."
Collins spreads it around. Five Black Bears receivers have more than 100 receiving yards and sophomore Micah Wright and junior Jaleel Reed each have more than 300.
While William and Mary's defensive line has battled injuries and the linebackers some growing pains, there has been more consistency in the backfield even though three of the four starting spots were up for grabs as late as the season opener at N.C. State.
Senior captain Tre Reed is the glue at cornerback while redshirt freshman free safety Corey Parker was recently named to the STATS FCS Freshman Player of the Year Watch List with three interceptions, and junior cornerback Aaron Swinton turned in perhaps the two most important plays of the Tribe's season in the fourth quarter of William and Mary's 24-17 win over Delaware Oct. 15.
In what amounted to a must-win game against the Blue Hens, Swinton snagged an interception in the end zone that sparked the offense to score and pull within 14-10. Swinton, who missed all but half of the first game last year with an ACL injury, later scored on a 63-yard pick six with 1:43 remaining to put William and Mary up 10, igniting the Zable faithful.
"It was nuts, for sure," Swinton said. "I was still in the zone so I couldn't really hear anything but just from seeing the highlights and stuff and talking to some of my family members that were at the game. They said they were going nuts. The team was going nuts. It was exciting, for sure."
"Loud as I've heard it in a long time," Reed said.
Reed credited Clecidor's fiery pregame speech for getting the backs "riled up."
Clecidor, a former Lafayette College cornerback, is in his second season in Williamsburg after joining the program from Monmouth University.
"He's probably one of the best coaches in the CAA," Reed said. "Since he's gotten here, we've all improved and he's on the same level with us. He just wants us to be playmakers. He truly pushes us to be the best we can be, from practice to the game and even in the film room."
Junior strong safety Richie DiPietro rounds out the secondary starters. His backup, Isaiah Laster, became the first William and Mary true freshman to start at safety since 2006 earlier this season.
The prime challenge for the defensive backfield has been attempting to fill the cavernous void safety DeAndre Houston Carson left after being drafted by the Chicago Bears in the sixth round.
Laycock has said it more than once: The Tribe was spoiled by Houston-Carson's production, which was as important in stopping the run as the long ball.
"We have to be more sound in other areas, too," Laycock said. "We can't just put it all on the safety position. That's probably the biggest thing. And then being able to keep consistency in the lineup."
"As a unit, the defensive backs here, we're just mentally strong," Swinton said. "We have a great leader in Tre Reed. He gets us all together. We have some younger guys too, back there. I think it took some time for us to really jell together, but we're getting better every week."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.
WHO: Maine (4-3, 3-1 CAA) at William and Mary (3-4, 1-3).
WHEN: 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Zable Stadium, Williamsburg.
ONLINE/RADIO: TribeAthletics.com/92.3FM, 107.9FM.