He was an NFL linebacker under Bill Parcells. Now, he’s guiding William & Mary’s thriving defense.
William & Mary has become so reliable at pressuring opposing quarterbacks under defensive coordinator Vince Brown that radio announcer Jay Colley called it “unusual” for the Tribe to be late in the first quarter of last Saturday’s game at Colgate without a sack.
On cue, defensive end Will Kiely beat his blocker on the next snap and sacked Raiders quarterback Grant Breneman before Nate Lynn, the Tribe’s other defensive end, sacked him on the next play. By the time Breneman exited early from a miserable outing — 9-for-16 passing for 74 yards — he had been sacked four times and the Tribe was on its way to a 27-7 victory.
Including the season-opening loss at Virginia in which the defense played well in the first half, the Tribe has racked up some impressive numbers in stopping the opposition. W&M has allowed just 10 total points and 259 yards per game in the past two victories — a 24-3 win over Lafayette included — and ranks third nationally in FCS in sacks (13), 12th in interceptions (five) and 13th in tackles for loss (22).
Individual numbers are impressive also, as the Tribe (2-1) opens Colonial Athletic Association play at 2 p.m. Saturday at Elon (1-2). That’s particularly true at the front of the 3-4 defense, where Kiely leads the CAA with four sacks, Lynn is tied for second with 3½ sacks and tackle Zyquan Bessant is coming off a game in which he posted a career-high five tackles and had a sack.
“Our guys up front have been able to apply pressure on the quarterback, whether it’s in terms of sacks, hurries or hits on the quarterback,” Tribe coach Mike London said. “The next time he falls back, he has them in mind.”
Breneman’s replacement, Harry Kirk, did no better, completing 9 of 22 for 74 yards as safety Gage Herdman intercepted him twice and recorded one of the Tribe’s four quarterback hurries. Herdman, the CAA Defensive Player of the Week, had one of two Tribe interception returns for touchdowns in the win over Lafayette.
“It’s fun when you start to get turnovers,” Brown said. “It builds momentum for the defense and the rest of the team.”
The defense has led the charge aplenty during Brown’s two-plus seasons at W&M. A linebacker for the New England Patriots for eight seasons (from 1988-95) — after playing at Mississippi Valley State with NFL receiving immortal Jerry Rice — Brown coached linebackers for the London-coached Richmond team that won the 2008 FCS (then Division I-AA) national title.
Brown got his start coaching inside linebackers in 2005 for the Dallas Cowboys, who were coached at that time by Bill Parcells. Brown said Parcells, the Patriots’ coach from 1993-96, and Al Groh, for whom he coached as a graduate assistant at Virginia, mentored him in the 3-4 defense.
“The most important thing is eliminating creases in your front, making the ball-carriers have to run east and west to move the football,” Brown said. “You want to be physical at the point and force teams into making mistakes by playing disciplined football.”
The Tribe accomplished that in his one full season, 2019, notching 30 sacks and forcing 24 turnovers during a season in which it won its final three games to finish 5-6. This year’s defense could exceed those numbers thanks to an increasingly dominant front, where linebackers John Pius and Trey Watkins have also shone, while Herdman and the secondary are proving more opportunistic than the ‘19 group.
“We have to minimize mental mistakes and missed opportunities,” Brown said. “In 2019 we had a chance to be in the top five in the country in turnovers, but we dropped a tremendous amount of catchable balls thrown at us.
“We also gave up explosive plays because of a lack of communication. You win games up front, but we’re really working on communication across the back from the second (linebackers) level to the third (secondary) level, so we can take advantage of the opportunities when presented to us.”
Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, firstname.lastname@example.org