It's a little like hearing Jimmie Johnson worry about competing for Sprint Cup titles or Warren Buffett fret about his investments. But that's where William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock is with his quarterbacks and the Tribe offense.
Laycock is at a loss to explain the struggles of starter Mike Paulus. Just last Saturday he turned to a recruited walk-on to help bail out the Tribe against a Division II opponent.
"We've got to get quarterback play up to a level that's comparable to (teams) in this league," Laycock said Tuesday, which ranks high in statements you never thought you'd hear from one of the respected offensive minds and quarterback developers in college football.
"For us to be just a total, handoff, running team, I don't think we're going to have a chance to be as successful as we need to be," he said. "We've got to be a little bit more diversified, and we've got to have the quarterback play to do it. And other people have to do it, too, so it's not just that. We'll see."
Granted, the season is just three weeks old, but the Tribe is flirting with historically dismal territory — at least in the modern era — when it comes to quarterback play.
W&M is 10th in the CAA in pass offense, and 107th out of 121 FCS teams, at 133.7 yards per game. The Tribe is last in the league in pass efficiency, and ranked 115th nationally. Only Morgan State has a lower completion percentage (38.6) than W&M quarterbacks (42.1).
"They're struggling a little bit at quarterback," said James Madison coach Mickey Matthews, who brings his athletic, experienced defense to Williamsburg on Saturday for the CAA opener for both teams. "We know a little bit about that around here. It's something that all programs go through. We all struggle at different positions and it seems to magnify itself when it's at quarterback. But I'm sure they'll work their way through it. They'll find somebody to play there."
Paulus, the transfer from North Carolina, is completing just 37.5 percent of his passes for 183 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Last season, he completed 62 percent of his passes for 883 yards as both a starter and reliever.
He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at North Carolina and missed spring practice as a result. He said during preseason camp that he felt much better prepared to run the offense after a spring and summer of study, though he has looked anything but comfortable at times thus far.
Backup quarterback Brent Caprio is just 5-for-12 for 44 yards, with two interceptions, in appearances against Virginia and VMI.
"I've been around a little bit," Laycock said, "and I think I've got a little bit of an idea about quarterbacks and the type of level of performance we need out of the quarterback position to have success in this league. That's where we're striving to get somebody up to that level of play. We'll see. We're working at it. I don't think we're there yet, but we're working at it."
Paulus was pulled at halftime last Saturday against New Haven after going 2-for-6 for seven yards with an interception in a game tied at 3. Laycock bypassed Caprio and went with No. 3 quarterback Michael Graham, a recruited walk-on, redshirt sophomore from Charlottesville.
Graham provided a bit of a spark, going 6-for-11 for 112 yards and a touchdown as the Tribe squeezed out a 13-10 win.
"I thought he played relatively well," Laycock said. "He did what we asked him to do. He got the ball to the people we asked him to get it to. His reads were good. His decision making was good."
Graham made a couple of nice throws in the second half — one a screen pass to Jon Grimes for the Tribe's lone touchdown in the third quarter, the second a 56-yard hookup with D.J. Mangas in the fourth quarter that led to the eventual game-winning field goal.
"What I was impressed with, Saturday night when we told him he was (playing) in the second half," Laycock said, "there was no panic or anything in what he did. I thought he did a nice job out there handling situations."
Laycock said that he and the staff would evaluate the quarterbacks Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. He said that Graham would be given more snaps with the first unit in practice, to determine how he progresses. He offered no timetable on naming a starter for JMU or who it might be.
"I'm not trying to hide anything from you, I promise you that," Laycock said. "I wish I knew."
Until the passing game improves, the Tribe will rely even more heavily on Grimes and the running game, on a stingy defense and on special teams to provide advantageous field position. The playbook has shrunk considerably at a time when Laycock and the staff are usually expanding it as their quarterback gains confidence and experience.
"The (plan) is always to challenge them, always give them plenty to do, but don't put it over the edge and that's what we're working to do," Laycock said. "We go in meetings sometimes and coaches want to do this, that or the other, but I say, 'Until we take this step, we're not going to take that step; until we do this, we're not going to do that.' It's been slowed down."