Outstanding defense is surprise, but Laycock gets reward by staying true to core

Who said Jimmye Laycock could no longer surprise us? After 30 years at William and Mary, didn't we know what he was about?

Freewheeling, imaginative offenses. Quarterbacks who pitch it around. Lots of points, lots of yards. First team to 40 wins.

Yet as William and Mary aims for the Colonial Athletic Association championship today against Richmond, it turns out we didn't know Laycock as well as we thought.

Sure, he is as demanding and organized as ever. For his quarterbacks, games are an afternoon stroll, compared to the rigors of practice.

But this is a William and Mary team unlike any we've seen, and not just because the Tribe sits at 9-1 and is capable of going places previous Laycock teams did not.

Like all of his peers, Laycock wants to win. If personnel suggests that he deviate from his standard formula, so be it. Nobody said there was only one way to get it done. We've just grown accustomed to that one way.

As others have described all season, this edition is built around a defensive unit unprecedented in Laycock's three decades at his alma mater.

The Tribe squeezes opponents on defense and punishes them on offense with the most effective running game it's had in years.

William and Mary's fate doesn't rest solely on Laycock and longtime offensive coordinator Zbig Kepa to brainstorm plays and on quarterback R.J. Archer to execute them. There's a margin for error that the team, and the offense, hasn't had in years — maybe ever.

"I don't know if it changes so much what we do on offense," Laycock said earlier this week. "It may change when we do it, depending on circumstances in the ballgame. I have a lot of confidence in our defense, as I do our offense, too.

"We want to be unpredictable. We want to do the things we feel like we can do the best. Again, that's what we strive to do offensively — put ourselves in the best position with personnel and that type of thing. But I don't think we really change what we do a whole lot."

Laycock's core values haven't changed, which explains not only his success, but his decision to remain at William and Mary.

He joked before the season began that he didn't foresee being there five years, never mind 306.

When you're hard-wired to approach the position week-to-week and year-to-year, however, and you embrace what the school and the athletic department stand for, the next thing you know, five years become 15, and 15 become a football building with your name affixed to it that permits you to run the program the way you believe it should be run.

Years from now, the Laycock Era will be viewed like Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. People will look at the institution, the academic standards, the competition, the skimpy finances and, until very recently, the archaic facilities and ask, "How the heck did they do that?"

Laycock's counterpart today, Richmond's Mike London, referred to Laycock as an "icon" in coaching. Laycock gave London his first full-time coaching gig almost 20 years ago, and London said he is forever grateful for both the job and the lessons learned.

"Coach (Laycock) is very organized," London said. "He has a plan for everything he does, and as a young coach, sometimes you don't get it. But whether you agree or disagree, then later on you find out, 'That was a good decision. He made it for the best interest of the team.'

"I learned a lot, just from his approach, a very methodical approach, about game-planning, about recruiting, about a lot of things."

Laycock aims for career victory 199 today. Wait, that's not quite accurate.

Laycock doesn't give a rat's derriere about No. 199. Those kinds of yardsticks are almost beyond his comprehension.

What he cares about is that it's Game 11. He and his players have the opportunity to test themselves, to be better than they were in Game 10.

Sure, there's the carrot of 10 wins and at least a share of the conference championship. There's the chance to improve their position for the playoffs and the accompanying recognition for the team and the school.

Of course that means something. The man isn't consigned to lab work in a basement, for cryin' out loud.

It's tempting to think that this is Laycock's best coaching job. Unlikely.

He'll tell you that he's smarter and more efficient than he was years ago. But he probably hasn't done any better job than in some of those six- and seven-win seasons that required every ounce of imagination and effort. Or the early years, where facilities and budgets were minuscule and the schedules were a mish-mashed gauntlet of Division I-As and I-AAs.

This season represents the convergence of talent, development, experience, facilities, and yes, coaching.

The one constant through all of it, Jimmye Laycock, is no surprise.

Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at dfairbank@dailypress.com. For more from Fairbank, read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit

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