WILLIAMSBURG — Two months and a conference gauntlet lie ahead, but the vibe surrounding William and Mary's football team is far different than this time last year.
The Tribe started poorly and never recovered. This season, W&M (2-1) has won its past two and enters Saturday's Colonial Athletic Association opener against Rhode Island (7 p.m., Zable Stadium) with confidence and momentum.
"Everybody wants to win, everybody's trying their hardest to win," Tribe middle linebacker Luke Rhodes said. "Nobody's taking plays off, nobody's taking series off. We're starting to finish games, which was another big problem last year. We'd get close and then we would make a bust — not make that one play. This year, offensively and defensively, we're playing all the way through the fourth quarter."
Rhodes embodies the improvement William and Mary made from last season's 2-9 slog. He evolved from promising redshirt freshman to confident leader.
"I think the biggest thing is how comfortable he is with our defense," defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Scott Boone said. "That's a real positive for our whole defensive unit. He's able to get us in the right calls. He's able to get blitzes set the way we want to blitz. And he's playing at a high level, individually. We've been real happy with his progress so far."
Rhodes looks the part of a middle linebacker: 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds. He is the Tribe's third-leading tackler, with 21 total stops and three pass break-ups. He possesses the physical strength to take on offensive linemen, the athletic ability to rush off the edge or cover tight ends and slot receivers.
He had eight tackles, forced a fumble and broke up a pass in the Tribe's 24-17 loss at West Virginia. He had eight tackles in last week's 34-6 win at Lafayette, as the Tribe defense permitted fewer than 100 yards rushing for the second week in a row.
"Defensively, we just have a nasty attitude right now and we're trying to establish some kind of dominance," Rhodes said.
Rhodes was voted third-team all-conference last season while essentially learning his position on the fly. He began the season as an outside linebacker, but moved inside following an early injury to veteran Dante Cook that limited him for much of the year.
As in most defenses, the middle linebacker at William and Mary receives defensive calls from the sideline and makes the appropriate checks and changes, based on what he sees. That was Rhodes' greatest challenge last season.
"I was making the calls, but they weren't always right," Rhodes said. "I didn't always exactly know what I was doing. For the most part, I was running around. Towards the end of the year, I started to pick things up. And like I said, the older guys helped me out."
A year's experience, along with a spring, summer and preseason camp working and studying the position, has made him a far better player.
"I think he really feels much more comfortable, now that he can just turn loose and use his abilities, is what it looks like to me," Tribe head coach Jimmye Laycock said.
Rhodes and Airek Green have been an effective combination at linebacker thus far. Green has 14 tackles, along with an interception return for a touchdown against Lafayette.
Boone said that Rhodes is capable of handling anything that he and the defensive staff dream up or implement. He is a willing student who puts in the necessary time to improve.
"I feel completely different this year," Rhodes said. "Starting the game this season, I have a whole newfound confidence that came from a whole season of experience under my belt. I'm able to see things quicker, move quicker, get my first step, and the confidence to lead the team is way different than last year."
The Tribe's schedule is backloaded — five of the last six opponents are ranked in at least one FCS poll — which makes a good first month critical in turning around last season's performance.
"I feel like we're progressing," Boone said of the defense. "I don't think we're by any means where we want to be. When we play hard and play fast, we're pretty good. A lot of that comes back to us as coaches, making sure we don't cause paralysis by analysis, and give them too much to think about.
"We've got some guys that like to run around, like to hit, like to be physical. The last thing we want to do is constrict that with too much thinking. I think when we play fast, we're a solid defense."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun