William and Mary’s Ivan Tagoe says he aims to be the best free safety in the country. Those who know him and watch him say it’s neither an idle boast or unattainable.
“Ivan has a high bar for himself,” Tribe defensive backs coach Tom Clark said. “His goal is to be the best safety in the country. He wants to be a player at the next level. He has the tools, there’s no doubt.”
Tagoe has stepped into the role vacated by all-conference safety Jerome Couplin III in spring practice, and the Tribe secondary hasn’t missed a beat. W&M concludes spring ball with its annual spring game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Zable Stadium.
“You have to have confidence in yourself,” Tagoe said. “Playing this sport, you have to be competitive and you have to want to be the best. If you don’t want to be the best, then this isn’t the sport for you.”
Tagoe, a 6-foot-1, 218-pound rising senior from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Burtonsville, Md., is poised to join the Tribe’s list of recent top-shelf defensive backs. Derek Cox, David Caldwell and B.W. Webb play professionally, while Couplin is an NFL prospect.
“Our expectations are high for him because he’s such a smart player and a great athlete,” Clark said of Tagoe. “He has not disappointed. He’s been very good with getting us into the right coverages, checking coverages. He’s got a real good grasp of what we do, and his abilities — he’s a definite NFL prospect. He’s a big kid, long, explosive, he’s got real good ball skills.”
Tagoe’s performance is by no means a surprise. He started all 12 games last season and was W&M’s No. 3 tackler (88). He ranked third in the Colonial Athletic Association in tackles by defensive backs (7.3 per game).
He played the fifth defensive back or “nickel back” in the Tribe’s primary alignment, in which he was an extra strong safety who took the place of an outside linebacker. He was a more athletic defender, closer to the ball and line of scrimmage. His pass-coverage ability provided added versatility for a group that was second in the nation in scoring defense (14 points per game) and eighth in total defense (305.5 yards per game).
W&M’s coaching staff moved Tagoe to free safety for several reasons: his experience and ability fit for one of the defense’s leadership positions; fellow safety Jared Velasquez, a primary contributor last season, is sitting out the spring while recovering from a knee injury; promising underclassmen Marcus Harvey and Keanu Reuben are developing at the nickel back position.
“All we’re doing is moving Ivan into that spot,” Clark said, “because we felt youth would be better served at (nickel back) and he would be able to manage the leadership aspect of the free safety. Some of the skills and complexity at free safety, you need some maturity, where the nickel spot can have a guy who’s a little more inexperienced.”
The coaches believe that Velasquez will fully recover in time for preseason practice and next season.
“If Jared comes back full-go, we’re really deep and in good shape in the secondary,” Clark said. “We have a lot of moves to make. I think right now we’re heading down the right path with what we’re doing.”
Tagoe played safety his first two years at W&M, so the transition hasn’t been difficult. He enjoys both positions.
“I have no preference, as long as I’m on the field,” he said.
The primary differences between the two positions, he said, are reaction time and leadership. The closer to the ball and the action, the quicker a player must read his keys and react. At free safety, there is generally more time to survey the entire field and determine where he must be.
“I’ve got to be a great open-field tackler,” Tagoe said. “At free safety, you’re usually the last line of defense. If you miss a tackle there, the other band will be playing.”
Tagoe and the entire defense have emphasized communication throughout the spring, an attempt to clean up the occasional disconnects that occurred last season. The constant on-field echoing of alignments and signals is at times tedious, but necessary.
Despite the overall effectiveness on defense, the Tribe lost its final two games last season and finished 7-5 — one win shy of making the FCS playoffs, judging by comments from the selection committee.
“Last year was a step in the right direction,” Tagoe said, “but we want to take it further.”
Tagoe, all-conference cornerback DeAndre Houston-Carson, Velasquez and strong safety Frank Tamakloe are a good nucleus in the secondary. The keys are developing a reliable cornerback opposite Houston-Carson, as well as depth and consistency.
“We obviously had a great year on defense last year and the secondary was very strong,” Clark said. “I’m thinking that we can be that caliber again. That’s what we’re pushing for. Nothing comes easy, but the kids are working hard and they’re talented. That’s all you can ask for — have guys with some talent and work hard for you. It’s a fun position for me to coach.”
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun