State of the Program: JMU Football Wants Another Trip to Frisco

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

After failing to post consecutive seasons of at least nine victories from 1972-2013, JMU football has won nine or more games in every season since 2014. There was uncertainty with the future of the program once Mickey Matthews departed and Everett Withers took control of the Dukes. Two successful seasons under Withers were followed by three fantastic seasons under Mike Houston. After five quality campaigns, the Dukes are firmly entrenched among the FCS elite. Curt Cignetti takes the reins to the program in 2019, and the Dukes hope the former Elon head coach can take them back to Frisco, Texas.

JMU returns 21 of 22 starters from last season’s season finale and it gets All-American cornerback Rashad Robinson back from injury. With a loaded roster, another good recruiting class and an experienced head coach, expectations are incredibly high in Harrisonburg.

While the Dukes have major expectations in 2019, questions remain. The Dukes underperformed in 2018, losing four games despite an extremely talented roster. Inconsistent quarterback play, underwhelming offensive line play and conservative strategy kept the Dukes from making a third consecutive trek to the national title game.

The Dukes can win the national title in 2019, but it’s far from a given, even with one of the better rosters in the country.

Biggest on-field question

JMU’s defense excelled in 2018, and the Dukes return almost everyone from that lineup. Add in Rashad Robinson and the Dukes might have the best defense in the FCS on paper. Defense isn’t a major concern, but the teams’s offense, and how the offense gels with new coaches, is the biggest question heading into 2019. The defense also has to break in new coaches, but new defensive coordinator Corey Heatherman’s aggressive scheme should fit well with JMU’s defensive personnel.

The offense, on the other hand, is less of a sure thing. Which of JMU’s top three quarterback options will be the starter? How will the Dukes respond to losing three proven senior running backs? Can the offensive line become a dominant force? Will a few receivers break out of a crowded group and become consistently reliable targets?

All of these questions can be answered. JMU doesn’t lack playmakers, and it is capable of being one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses. There’s a realistic chance the Dukes finish in the top 10 in scoring in the FCS in 2019. The Dukes have the talent to be an elite offense, but as we saw last season, talent doesn’t always lead to on-field results.

Depth chart analysis

Quarterbacks: Ben DiNucci, a Pittsburgh transfer, won the starting gig in 2018. He enters summer camp as the favorite to win the starting job, but Cole Johnson and Gage Moloney are both in the mix. DiNucci is a redshirt senior, Johnson is a redshirt junior and Moloney enters his redshirt sophomore season.

DiNucci took some heat from JMU fans after throwing five interceptions in JMU’s 23-20 playoff loss to Colgate. His inconsistency hurt the Dukes, but he’s one of the CAA’s better quarterbacks when he’s playing well. DiNucci finished the season throwing for 2,275 yards and 16 touchdowns to go with 12 interceptions.

Johnson and Moloney don’t possess the same scrambling ability as DiNucci, who ran for 433 yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns last year. Moloney is a better runner than Johnson, and neither guy lacks athleticism, but DiNucci’s ability to extend plays gives him a leg up on his peers. Moloney, though, is the best pure rusher of the group. The lefty has some similarities to Tim Tebow in terms of size and physical running style.

Redshirt freshman Jake O’Donnell and redshirt sophomore Patrick Bentley are also listed on the roster, but neither is expected to earn playing time this year.

Running backs: Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp graduated, but the Dukes’ running back room doesn’t lack talent. Junior Percy Agyei-Obese will be joined by redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton, redshirt junior Eric Kirlew, redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse and three talented freshmen recruits. CJ Jackson, Latrele Palmer and Austin Douglas all come to JMU with high expectations and elite skillsets.

Despite losing three quality backs to graduation, JMU’s running back position might be better than it was in 2019. Agyei-Obese and Hamilton should handle the bulk of the carries, and both are capable receivers who can play all three downs. Vanhorse impressed during spring practices and might earn a few carries during the year. Kirlew, a walk-on, looks like the odd man out as all three freshmen will make a case to earn carries as well. JMU’s running game is in a good spot.

Wide receivers/tight ends: The Dukes might have the deepest group of pass catchers in the country. Dozens of FBS teams should be jealous of JMU’s embarrassment of riches at wide receiver and tight end.

Riley Stapleton, whose status remains a little uncertain given an off-field incident, leads the wide receivers. He’s a big-bodied redshirt senior who can take games over on the outside. He led the team with 62 receptions, 710 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Joining Stapleton is a talented group of redshirt sophomores. Kyndel Dean, Josh Sims and Ezrah Archie have all shown flashes in their college careers and should find the field in 2019. Redshirt junior Jake Brown is another wide receiver to keep an eye on.

Over the spring and summer, the Dukes added two transfer wide receivers. Dillon Spalding, a redshirt freshman, joins JMU from West Virginia. Brandon Polk, a redshirt senior from Penn State, provides a speedy option who might fit well in the slot. Polk could serve as a Rashard Davis or John Miller type who contributes in the return game and causes chaos from the slot receiver position.

The Dukes have a few other wide receivers on the depth chart, but it will be hard for guys like Devin Ravenel and Davis Patterson to take reps away from the top few receiving threats, especially in what’s expected to be a run-first offense.

At tight end, JMU’s depth jumps off the page. Clayton Cheatham, Dylan Stapleton and Nick Carlton are options 1a, 1b and 1c. Freshman Hunter Bullock joins sophomore Drew Painter to round out the room.

Cheatham only had six catches in his sophomore campaign, but showed the ability to find the end zone during his freshman season. Stapleton is a big target who developed a nice connection with DiNucci last season. Carlton is an exciting receiving prospect, but has battled injuries and hasn’t spent a ton of time on the field playing meaningful snaps. He’s still a solid option at tight end, and it speaks to JMU’s depth that he’s likely the third best option at the position.

Offensive line: Every member of JMU’s offensive line who was listed on the two-deep against Colgate returns this season. Mac Patrick is the leader of the line at center, and he was flanked by Zaire Bethea at left guard, Raymond Gillespie at left tackle, Tyree Chavious at right guard and Liam Fornadel at right tackle.

Jahee Jackson, Truvell Wilson, Jake Glavin and J.T. Timming are all guys expected to vie for playing time. Keep a close eye on redshirt freshman Nick Kidwell. He’s listed at 6-feet-5-inches tall and 319 pounds. He’s listed as JMU’s largest offensive lineman, and he’s a physical blocker with great upside.

Overall, the offensive line has good depth, but the Dukes need to become more dominant in 2019 to attain Cignetti’s goal of being the country’s top rushing offense.

Passing yards: 100%

Rushing yards: 31%

Receptions: 77%

Tackles: 79%

TFLs: 74%

Sacks: 76%

INTs: 65%

Defensive line: JMU’s defensive line is elite. John Daka, Ron’Dell Carter, Adeeb Atariwa and Mike Greene form a ferocious starting unit. Matt Terrell adds good depth at the end position. Isaac Ukwu possesses similar attributes to Daka and is expected to be a threat off the edge.

Paris Black left the program, making defensive tackle depth a question. Redshirt sophomore Semaj Sorhaindo has the size to fill in for Atariwa and Greene, but he’s relatively unproven at the collegiate level. He’ll need to be ready for meaningful snaps in 2019.

Carter is the most versatile player on the line, as he’s strong enough to play defensive tackle at times, which would allow the Dukes to rush both Daka and Ukwu off the edge. Look for Carter to slide to defensive tackle on third-down passing situations.

Freshman Jalen Green is someone to monitor, as he has the ability to play right away if needed. Redshirt sophomore Garret Groulx is another highly-respected prospect who may find his way onto the field. Groulx has good size, and like Carter, can play both defensive end or defensive tackle. Defensive end Antonio Colclough transferred from Temple and will have four years of eligibility remaining. It’ll be tough for him to break into the lineup in 2019, but he’ll be a name to note for the next 2-4 years.

Linebackers: Another position, another deep unit. Dmitri Holloway leads the way, and he’ll be joined by Landan Word. The two combined for 173 tackles last season, and Word missed six games due to injury. If they’re both healthy, Word and Holloway are one of the best linebacker pairs in the country. Mateo Jackson, Mike Cobbs and Bryce Maginely all add important depth. Expect those three to also help on special teams.

Freshman Julio Ayamel is a good young prospect who might fight for playing time in his first season.

Wayne Davis Jr. is listed as a linebacker, but he’s more of a linebacker hybrid. He can easily play corner or come into the box and play linebacker. He’s one of the defense’s most versatile players, and the Ohio State transfer should be all over the field in his second season as a Duke.

Defensive backs: Rashad Robinson returns and will wear No. 1 this season. Robinson is joined by Davis Jr., Charles Tutt, Taurus Carroll, Jamari Currence and Wesley McCormick. The Dukes have a few other options at the position, but will likely rely mostly on Robinson, Davis Jr. and Tutt. Carroll, Currence and McCormick will all fight for additional playing time.

At safety, Adam Smith and D’Angelo Amos will handle most of the duties. Junior MJ Hampton adds size and experience at the position as well. He’ll likely add depth and be a special teams contributor. After Smith and Amos, most of the other options are inexperienced but talented.

Special teams: JMU’s special teams unit might be the best in the country. Harry O’Kelly enters his junior season as the punter, and Ethan Ratke retains placekicking duties. With Jawon Hamilton potentially serving as a kick returner and Amos being one of the best punt returners in the country, JMU will have plenty of chances to score touchdowns on special teams. Polk may even make his way onto the field for some return responsibilities.

How the Dukes have recruited from 2016-19

According to HERO Sports’ FCS recruiting rankings, here’s where the Dukes’ recruiting class ranks against their FCS peers:

2019: No. 8

2018: No. 5

2017: No. 2

2016: No. 5

The Dukes have posted four consecutive classes in the top 10 of the FCS, and the on-field product backs up what the rankings say. JMU’s roster is among the most talented in the FCS.

When looking at the 2019 class, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the trio from Good Counsel High School in Maryland. Linebacker Julio Ayamel, running back Latrele Palmer and defensive lineman Jalen Green are all expected to develop into impact players. Landing those three guys from a talented Maryland high school is a good sign for things to come. JMU does a great job landing players in the Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina areas, and that success should continue under Cignetti.

JMU’s recruiting also requires us to address transfers, as transfers are a key reason why JMU is an FCS title contender. Here’s a list of the impact transfers the Dukes have on their 2019 roster:

  • Ben DiNucci – Pitt
  • Ron’Dell Carter – Rutgers
  • Dylan Stapleton – Slippery Rock
  • Brandon Polk – Penn State
  • Landan Word – Virginia
  • Jawon Hamilton – UCF
  • Wayne Davis Jr. – Ohio State

The Dukes have found tremendous success adding transfers. Both Vad Lee and Bryan Schor transferred into JMU after starting their careers elsewhere. Darrious Carter, Marcus Marshall and David Eldridge were impactful transfers the past few seasons. Expect JMU to continue to add talented transfers, many of the FBS variety, in coming seasons.

Impact of coaching changes

Coaching changes define JMU football. Withers spent two seasons at JMU before leaving for Texas State. Houston spent three years at JMU before moving on to East Carolina. Is Cignetti a long-term solution? Will he find the same success Houston did? At 58 years old, it wouldn’t be stunning if Cignetti does decide to stay in the ‘Burg for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, he’s an elite coach with a strong background and a Group of 5 school may very easily offer him a job within the next few years if JMU continues winning at a high level under his watch.

In the more immediate future, JMU breaks in a new group of coaches this season. Heatherman will handle the defense and Shane Montgomery will manage the offense. JMU shouldn’t have a massive learning curve under either coordinator, although terminology changes take time to learn completely. Don’t expect the Dukes to struggle early in the season, but they’ll likely feel more comfortable with their system and identity as the season progresses.

Defensively, Heatherman loves to get after the quarterback and play aggressively. He’s happy to blitz and leave his corners on an island. He trusts his team to make plays, and the Dukes should see an increase in their sack total (36) from last season. Look for massive seasons from John Daka and Ron’Dell Carter. Heatherman comes to JMU from Maine, so he knows what to expect from CAA offenses.

Offensively, Montgomery loves to run the ball. JMU wants to lead the country in rushing, so multiple running backs should see consistent work. Regardless of who plays quarterback, they should have chances to exploit defenses through play-action passing. The biggest question marks offensively are the quarterback position and offensive line. If JMU finds consistently above average quarterback play and strong performances from the offensive line, Montgomery holds the keys to one of the country’s most dynamic offenses.

Schedule analysis

JMU’s schedule features a few challenges, and a few games that will likely be massive blowouts.

Aug. 31 at West Virginia

Sept. 7 vs. Saint Francis (Pa)

Sept. 14 vs. Morgan State

Sept. 21 at Chattanooga

Sept. 28 at Elon

Oct. 5 at Stony Brook

Oct. 12 vs. Villanova

Oct. 19 at William & Mary

Oct. 26 vs. Towson

Nov. 9 vs. New Hampshire

Nov. 16 vs. Richmond

Nov. 23 at Rhode Island

This season’s schedule is intriguing. JMU starts off with a winnable matchup against a Power 5 team undergoing a coaching change of its own, before hosting Saint Francis and Morgan State. Realistically, JMU should start the season 2-1 with a shot at going 3-0. September ends with two challenging road games. The road matchup with Elon holds plenty of storylines with Cignetti returning to Elon for the first time and the Dukes looking for revenge after last season’s loss.

October won’t be easy as the Dukes play on the road against Stony Brook and William & Mary and they host Villanova and Towson. The Tigers have high preseason expectations with Tom Flacco returning at quarterback.

November features home games with New Hampshire and Richmond before the Dukes end the season at Rhode Island in what will likely be a chilly Saturday afternoon.

Final assessment

JMU holds the tools to win the FCS National Championship, but the Dukes will need to navigate a challenging scheduling and gel under first-year head coach Curt Cignetti to make that dream a reality. Based on the coaching experience and current roster, it would be surprising if the Dukes don’t win 9+ games and at least make an FCS Quarterfinal appearance.

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