Barely moments after the last piece of confetti fell in Frisco, signaling the end of the 2019 college football season, William & Mary opened its spring practice season in Williamsburg, kicking off the 2020 campaign.
The Tribe will complete their spring slate on March 7 — before some programs even start theirs, and two weeks before literal spring — but it’s been a fitting timetable for kickoff of Year 2 under coach Mike London.
“It’s important for our guys to have time with our sports performance people, getting bigger, faster, stronger,” London said. “Anybody who had issues from a physical standpoint will have more time to heal up before our August camp, and you see that’s kind of a trend, some programs going earlier than later.”
And spring practice falling in winter has not left the Tribe digging through the snow to get to the practice field — although London said he had to “knock on my head” to avoid jinxing the final stretch.
Yes, an earlier spring schedule has its benefits from that perspective. It also got William & Mary on the field after an autumn that ended with plenty of positive momentum.
London’s return to the Colonial Athletic Association, where he played and later coached Richmond to a national championship, began with some stumbles.
After a 2-1 start, with blowouts of Lafayette and Colgate, William & Mary suffered fourth-quarter heartbreaks against East Carolina, UAlbany and Villanova.
The results may not have broken William & Mary’s way in the 2019 season’s first month, but the Tribe’s performance demonstrated their potential.
In CAA-opening losses to playoff-qualifying UAlbany and Villanova — two games in which William & Mary had game-ending possessions with the prospect of forcing overtime — the Tribe scored 31 and 28 points. That’s more than they recorded in any game in 2018, when the Tribe’s 13.6 points per game ranked last in the CAA.
A breakthrough was inevitable, and by season’s end, those close games started breaking William & Mary’s way. The Tribe finished 2018 as one of the CAA’s hottest, winning three of their final four, including two in overtime against Elon and rival Richmond.
William & Mary’s strong finish was in no small part a culmination to the careers of some talented upperclassmen. Seniors like 2018 CAA Co-Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Laster, pass-rushing menaces Gavin Johnson and All-American Bill Murray, finished their tenures in Williamsburg with a flourish.
They’re also just a few of the “lot of seniors” the Tribe replace in 2020, the emphasis London’s.
“At the same time,” he added, “a lot of guys coming back on our team this year are freshmen who played: Bronson Yoder, Hollis Mathis, Donavyn Lester. All those guys got good time, good playing experience.”
And they delivered good production. The dual-threat quarterback Mathis finished second in rushing with 546 yards, scored a team-high eight touchdowns on the ground, and threw for four more scores.
The running back Lester ran for 271 yards and four touchdowns, and showed signs of being an outstanding pass-catcher out of the backfield in the years to come. His development in that regard will be a nice complement to Kane Everson, who quickly established himself as the team’s top receiving target.
Everson caught 46 passes, a team-high, and went for three touchdowns.
Then there was Yoder, one of the most spectacular surprises to emerge from the 2019 CAA season. Yoder handled kickoff responsibilities and ran back two for touchdowns, then integrated into the offense to become the team’s third-leading rusher. He even attempted two passes.
Quite the workload for a player who was officially listed at safety. No word on if he also took tickets before the game, but Yoder did just about everything else.
Combining veteran savvy with youthful promise facilitated William & Mary’s season-long progress. Beginning with spring ball, the youngsters who integrated with the returning veterans in the season past graduate to the duties of experienced leaders.
And spring practices provide a unique opportunity to put that leadership into action for the offensive returners, with William & Mary embarking on the offseason workouts with a change in coordinators.
Brennan Marion, whose Go-Go scheme helped dramatically improve the Tribe’s formerly last-place offense, reunited with his former coach at Tulsa and colleague at Arizona State, Todd Graham, on the staff at Hawaii.
Continuing last season’s offensive growth with a new coordinator, once that hire is settled, is a big-picture focus for the Tribe in 2020. On a more precise scale, London said their spring practices have emphasized “becoming situationally better in terms of our football IQ.”
“The third-down situations, your conversions, knowing the down-and-distance and the tendencies the other side have,” he explained. “A young player might rely on his athleticism alone. But now, as we start to go into spring practice, and create those situations in practice, not only are they using their physical skills: They’re using their smarts.”