In hindsight, William and Mary's Jimmye Laycock wondered if expectations were too high. He would never discourage his players and coaches from aiming for championships, but he understands the fine line between success and frustration competing in one of the best leagues in the country.
William and Mary's first losing season since 2007 was jarring, given the program's recent track record and the prospects for 2011. The Tribe was picked to win the Colonial Athletic Association, and a third consecutive trip to the playoffs was a reasonable goal.
Instead, the team's nearly season-long issues at quarterback turned the clock back to Laycock's early years coaching his alma mater.
Bottom line, a team with arguably the best running back in the history of the program and a defense with solid to exceptional personnel couldn't produce a winning record.
"I never go in with expectations, other than trying to be as good as we can be," Laycock said. "I think we achieved a good bit. I think we probably could have achieved a little bit more in certain areas here and there. I'd like to think so. I don't mind having the bar raised high. I don't mind shooting for more things."
William and Mary (5-6, 3-5 CAA) finished next-to-last in the conference in scoring and managed just 202 points, the fewest since 1981 — Laycock's second season, when the schedule was still dotted with Division I-A opponents.
The offensive struggles were a direct result of quarterback play. For the second consecutive season, the Tribe played four quarterbacks. Unlike in 2010, however, the revolving door didn't end in a conference championship and postseason berth.
Mike Paulus, the senior transfer from North Carolina, was unable to produce after being given first crack at the starter's job following a decent junior season cut short by a shoulder injury. He missed spring practice and a good portion of the summer recovering.
Paulus was confident in preseason practice and as the season began, but was unable to translate that confidence into production on the field.
Paulus gave way to Brent Caprio, who gave way to Michael Graham. Graham showed promise through the middle part of the season. When he was sidelined by an illness, the quarterback progression began again when no one seized the position.
After a thumb injury scuttled Graham's season, the Tribe offense began to gain some traction as Caprio developed at the end of the year.
If nothing else, the experience should provide for an interesting battle next spring and summer among Graham, Caprio, redshirt freshman Raphael Ortiz and promising true freshman Christian Brumbaugh.
"We played some good games," Laycock said. "Once we got going, then we started having guys go in and out of the lineup and we could never maintain consistency in the lineup, so that really hurt us once we got things going a little bit."
Pity that no one emerged this season to remove some of the load from Jonathan Grimes. The senior tailback led the CAA in rushing (1,431 yards) and all-purpose yards (2,510). He concluded his record-breaking career with three consecutive 200-yard rushing games — despite the fact that defenses lasered in on him and dared Tribe quarterbacks to beat them.
The Tribe's unproductive offense put more pressure on the defense to keep games close, or even to win them. Statistically solid, W&M's defense rarely took over. One notable exception was a 24-10 win against No. 6 New Hampshire, in which W&M's defense allowed 527 yards, but came up with four turnovers.
"Probably the biggest difference in this year's team, as opposed to teams that have gone to the playoffs was the turnover margin," Laycock said. "The fact that we had more than we got, and in this league that as big a factor as anything."
Indeed, the Tribe's 2010 conference co-champ and playoff team was plus-10 in turnover margin. The 2009 team that went to the FCS semifinals was plus-11. This year's team was minus-four.
"Sometimes they throw the ball to you, sometimes they don't," Laycock said. "Sometimes they turn the ball loose, sometimes they don't. I think a lot of times, the better you are, the more athletic you are, the harder you play, the better you do things, usually you get a bit more, and we didn't."
W&M's defense was notably thin in spots, as well, as end Bryan Stinnie and linebacker Dante Cook missed significant time. Several others, notably linebacker Jake Trantin, end Marcus Hyde and safety/linebacker Brian Thompson, played with nagging injuries.
"Defensively, I don't know if we ran out of gas," Laycock said, "but we ran out of guys in the lineup. We weren't playing with that many guys up front and guys like (tackle George) Beerhalter and Hyde just got worn flat down."
Looking ahead to next season, expectations will be diminished based on 2011 results, Grimes' departure and uncertainty at quarterback. The Tribe returns five offensive linemen with starting experience, as well as all-conference wide receiver Ryan Moody and Tre McBride — one of only two freshmen to play.
The defense will be led by Cook, all-conference cornerback B.W. Webb, Thompson and Beerhalter. Punter and placekicker Drake Kuhn returns.
Laycock said this season's step back won't prompt big changes in the staff's approach or in recruiting.
"I don't think there's any major overhaul," he said. "We've got some good young players, good solid players in the program. They just need to keep working and step up."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun