WILLIAMSBURG — William and Mary's defense is an intricate interplay among all 11 players, with an array of blitzes, coverages and abilities designed to take away what opponents do best. Much of that starts with the two players in the middle of the defensive line, and the three young men who rotate among those positions.
The Tribe's defensive tackles have excelled much of the season, fueling the group's climb up the national statistical rankings and the team's rise to the upper half of the Colonial Athletic Association.
After a cold smack in the mush in a loss at Maine, William and Mary (6-3, 3-2 CAA) has won two straight and continues its push toward a possible playoff berth at No. 15 Delaware (7-2, 4-1 CAA) Saturday in Newark, Del.
"I think we're playing pretty well, especially in the middle," said defensive tackle Tyler Claytor, a key component of the three-man rotation. "When we play good up the middle, force double teams, get penetration, make plays, bounce plays outside and let our linebackers and safeties run to the ball, it really helps out our defense a lot. We talk about leveraging the ball and running to it like sharks."
The Tribe leads the nation in scoring defense (12.4 ppg) after shutting out New Hampshire 17-0 and squeezing James Madison 17-7 in its two most recent games.
The last time W&M limited back-to-back opponents to fewer points was the 2009 FCS playoffs, when it blanked Weber State in the first round (38-0) and shut down then-No. 1 Southern Illinois 24-3 in the quarterfinals.
The last time the Tribe held conference opponents to fewer points in consecutive games was 1995, when future NFL standout Darren Sharper roamed the secondary and W&M registered shutouts against New Hampshire (39-0) and Northeastern (32-0).
William and Mary also leads the CAA in total defense (303.8) — the Tribe is No. 8 nationally — and is third against the run (116.7 ypg) and pass (186.7 ypg). W&M also leads the conference in third-down conversion defense (.317) and turnover margin (plus-5).
"If you play good defense, you've got a pretty good kicking game, and you're plus in turnover (margin), you've got a pretty good chance of winning," said head coach Jimmye Laycock, who was referring specifically to the New Hampshire game, but could have been talking about football in general.
The threesome of George Beerhalter, Jasper Coleman and Claytor are the starting point for the Tribe's defensive resurgence. Beerhalter played much of last season one-handed, Coleman played on one leg, and Claytor was a true freshman pressed into immediate duty out of both necessity and ability.
"A huge thing that I'm working on this year is consistency," Claytor said. "Last year, it was kind of getting my feet wet, feeling out the game, getting used to the speed, playing a little faster. But this year, it's being consistent, staying within the frame of the defense and helping out the team as much as I can."
All three tackles are a year older and more experienced and have remained healthy this season. Beerhalter, for the first time in his career, was able to devote an entire offseason and summer to strength and conditioning because he didn't have some surgery or ailment to overcome.
With similar personnel, and an All-American cornerback in B.W. Webb, the Tribe last season gave up twice as many points per game (24.3) as this season and 50 more yards per game. In fairness, W&M's defense became worn down last season in part because the offense had a difficult time generating yards and points, but this season the defense is making its own breaks and getting off the field.
"We're more productive because of the defensive tackles," Tribe defensive line coach Trevor Andrews said. "We would get a pass rush last year, but quarterbacks would step up and throw it or step up and scramble. Now, these guys are compressing the pocket, and (defensive ends Mike) Reilly and (Stephen) Sinnott and (Bryan) Stinnie are all benefiting from it."
It's rare for defensive tackles to amass big statistics. Their jobs are often to hold their ground, occupy blockers and permit ends and linebackers to run freely, fill gaps and make plays. Coleman has 29 tackles, with 4.5 tackles for loss. Beerhalter has 27 tackles with 3.0 TFL, and Claytor has 16 stops with 5.0 TFL.
"He's got really good hips, so he's always able to get around guys and get in the backfield," Andrews said. "We'd like to see him finish a little bit better on some plays. He gets back there and disrupts some things. He forces it to bounce, but I'd like to see him finish a few more."
Claytor's learning curve wasn't as steep as some others. His older brother, Nick, was an offensive lineman at Georgia Tech and later played in the Canadian Football League. Tyler followed his brother's lead, as well as that of former Georgia Tech teammates such as Derrick Morgan (Tennessee Titans) and other NFL players who worked out in the Atlanta area during the players' lockout several years ago.
Seeing the way professionals worked and worked out contributed to Claytor taking a cerebral approach to football, despite the game's obvious physical nature. He believes that technique and movement can overcome disadvantages in size or experience, so he constantly probes for opponents' weaknesses on video and across the line.
Andrews said that he had to find the right approach to motivate Claytor, because the player rarely showed emotion in meetings and practices. He said that Claytor absorbs the coaching, needling and periodic sarcasm without a word in return.
Claytor countered that he separates his off-field and gameday personas. He plays with emotion, but doesn't manufacture it across his daily existence.
"You've got to be a sponge sometimes," Claytor said. "You have to take a lot of criticism in football. You can do a lot of things wrong, all on one play.
"It doesn't really bother me when Coach yells at me. The only thing that bothers me is when he's not saying anything — oh, man, I must be doing so badly that he can't even correct me. As long as he's yelling at me and trying to make me better, it makes me better as a player, it makes the defensive line better as a unit, it makes the defense better as a whole team. I don't mind the yelling because I know it's coming from a good place and that he just wants me to improve."
Fairbank can be reached at 757-247-4637Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun