It was August, and William & Mary football coach Jimmye Laycock called one of the most important meetings of a season that was still a month from beginning.
Laycock brought together his senior captains – quarterback R.J. Archer, safety David Caldwell, defensive tackle Sean Lissemore, defensive end Adrian Tracy and tight end Rob Varno. Together, they reviewed the roster looking for some special players.
Athletic ability was of secondary importance. Pinpointing leadership ability was the goal.
When they were done, Laycock added seven more names to the Tribe’s Player Council. The dozen players, from all classes, serve as the conduit between the coaches and players. They relay team rules. They oversee their enforcement.
They are the compass that directs the other players.
While the sixth-ranked Tribe has received outstanding performances from their defense, offense and special teams in compiling a 10-2 mark heading into Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal matchup at top-ranked Southern Illinois, none of those units has outstripped the job done by the Player Council. The game will be televised regionally by Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) and also air on ESPN GamePlan as well as ESPN360.com.
“We’ve got a very solid group of seniors, a very solid group of captains, a very solid group of upperclassmen who have been there and done it before,” Laycock said. “They’ve worked very hard to get here and they’ve not only encouraged and pushed the other guys, they’ve set a very good example as to how it’s to be done.”
Several council members, like sophomore linebacker Jake Trantin, would say that it’s been remarkably easy. The council has met only a few times this season, most of those early. Players have respected the rules and the task at hand from the first practice.
“We really haven’t had a situation on this football team where anyone got down or wasn’t doing what was expected and had to be addressed,” he said. “I’m sure that’s unusual for a football team. This year’s leadership is the best since I’ve been here.”
Following a second meeting with Laycock in August, the council addressed the team early in fall practice. They laid out the rules and regulations the coaches expected them to follow.
But among a broad spectrum of issues that can impact a team internally, they also discussed academics: the importance of attending class and putting in whatever hours were necessary to succeed in their studies.
They talked about taking care of their bodies and minds, not skipping visits to the training room, not skipping out on film sessions. They addressed how important it would be for the backups to go hard in practice every day, to challenge the starters, to give them as honest a representation of the upcoming opponent as possible.
“We came up with training rules, rules to keep everyone in order,” said Lissemore. “We also came up with goals and mottos.”
The goal was simple: go 1-0 each week. Ten out of 12 times, the Tribe succeeded.
The motto was equally succinct: strictly business.
“People felt like we had something here, and now was the time to do it. Why wait?” said running back Jonathan Grimes, a council member. “Everyone realized the potential we had, and we wanted to make the best of it. The upperclassmen were here when things weren’t so good, and they wanted to turn it around. Now that they had done that, they wanted to take advantage of it.”
Keeping it going against the No. 1 team in the FCS (formerly I-AA) should entail a rare match of uncommon strengths. Southern Illinois, paced by senior running back Deji Karim, is fourth in the nation in rushing at 232 yards per game. Karim is second nationally with an average of 138 yards per game.
“Karim is big league,” Laycock said. “We’ve seen him take it all the way a number of times.”
The rest of the offense isn’t bad, either. Overall, SIU averages 413 yards per game.
But they’re going up against the Tribe’s top-ranked rushing defense, one that yields just 50 yards per game. Only three teams have managed more than 100 ground yards against W&M, and it took James Madison 50 attempts to gain 150 yards.
While the Salukis average 37 points per game, the Tribe allows just 13, second-best nationally. Opponents have started 135 drives this season. W&M has ended 64 of them – a phenomenal 47 percent – after three plays or less.
“It’s paramount for us to hang onto the ball, get as many possessions as possible,” Laycock said, setting up what could be a matchup of very conservative gameplans.
Feeding into that possibility is the fact that SIU has intercepted a nation’s-best 22 passes this season.
“They didn’t get to where they are without playing some very, very good football,” Laycock said. “It’s no secret why they’ve been successful.”
Obviously, the same could be said of the Tribe, which has performed with a sense of urgency born in the steamed heat of a Williamsburg August.
“The seniors came up with the idea to play every game like it’s your last one, because they never know when it’s going to be their last snap,” cornerback B.W. Webb said. “They have put it all out on the field, and that has carried over to all of us taking that attitude.”
Note: A W&M victory Saturday would be the 200th of Laycock’s coaching career, an achievement he downplayed. “I’ve never been one to count those things,” he said. “A win would mean that we’re advancing to the next round.”