10 Reasons JMU Football Should be the FCS National Title Favorite

Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Today marks 10 weeks until the start of JMU football’s 2019 season. Today also marks the start of our weekly countdown until kickoff between JMU and West Virginia on Aug. 31. Every Saturday from now until the start of the season, we’re going to share a post similar to this one. We’ll try to tackle JMU’s best players, the Bridgeforth Stadium experience and more. This week, we’ll start by sharing 10 reasons why JMU football should be the national title favorite.

10. Quarterback play

Quarterback play is a question mark heading into 2019, but that’s mostly because JMU has high expectations. How many other FCS teams would jump at the chance to have Ben DiNucci, Cole Johnson and Gage Maloney on the roster? I imagine it’s most of them.

Assuming (for simplicity’s sake) DiNucci wins the starting job, the Dukes will have familiarity with their signal caller. DiNucci, a Pitt transfer and Third Team All-CAA selection last season, enters the year as one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. If he limits turnovers — his five interceptions against Colgate played a key role in the team’s 23-20 loss — DiNucci possesses the running ability and accuracy (he was third nationally with a 68% completion percentage) to succeed in Shane Montgomery’s offense.

If DiNucci isn’t named the starter, JMU’s offense takes on a different form. The Dukes may elect to ride the strong arm of Cole Johnson or use the dynamic running ability and raw arm talent of Gage Maloney. Either way, the Dukes’ quarterbacks should prove effective. Every option has experience at the collegiate level — even if it’s not in a starting role — and there’s significant depth at the position. If the starter gets hurt, the team’s confidence remains high.

Quarterback is considered a question mark, but the Dukes hold ample weapons to put up some of the better quarterback numbers in the country. Don’t expect many games with 35-40 pass attempts, but the passing attack should be efficient.

9. Curt Cignetti

The argument can be made that Cignetti is a more proven coach than Houston. (When Houston reaches Cignetti’s age, this might be a different story.) Cignetti’s credentials speak for themselves, but we’ll go ahead and talk about them anyway.

A coach for nearly 40 years, Cignetti spent time at Pittsburgh, Temple, NC State and Alabama as an assistant. As a head coach, he’s 67-26 overall and 43-16 in conference games with IUP and Elon. He’s 41 games over .500 at schools that aren’t known for having tremendous football resources. IUP has a winning tradition, especially under Frank (Curt’s father) and Curt Cignetti, but it still requires a good bit of effort to win as consistently as Curt did. Elon’s program joined the CAA in 2014 and was a bottom dweller before Cignetti took the helm. He led the Phoenix to the postseason in each of his first two seasons.

Houston joined JMU with a 43-19 overall record and a 28-7 conference mark in two head coaching stops. He also showed the ability to win at schools that didn’t have an excessive amount of football resources. In his three seasons in Harrisonburg, the Dukes went 37-6 with a national title victory in two appearances. When given ample resources, Houston proved to be an elite coach. Cignetti has the track record to follow a similar path.

8. The pass rush

JMU might possess the best pass rush in the entire country. John Daka, Ron’Dell Carter, Adeeb Atariwa and Mike Greene form a fearsome starting unit. Isaac Ukwu, Matt Terrell, Antontio Colclough, Garret Groulx and freshman Jalen Green are a few notable backups that would likely start at a handful of other CAA programs.

Defensive coordinator Corey Heatherman loves to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and he may only need a four-man rush to consistently record sacks. Expect a big year from the defensive line.

7. Home-field advantage

JMU consistently tops the FCS in attendance, and Bridgeforth Stadium’s advantage pays off in the record book. The Dukes are 31-5 at home in the past five seasons with a 22-1 record the previous three years. With the loudest home crowd in the conference and the most notable home-field advantage, the Dukes have an added edge when chasing the CAA crown. If the Dukes win the CAA, they will likely earn a seed. Earning a seed guarantees home playoff games, and we know what happens when the Dukes play at home. In the past three years, the Dukes have played six home playoff games. Here’s how they went:

2016

55-22 win over New Hampshire

65-7 win over Sam Houston State

2017

26-7 win over Stony Brook

31-28 win over Weber State

51-16 win over South Dakota State

2018

20-6 win over Delaware

JMU wins at home, especially in recent postseasons. If the Dukes take care of business at home, they’ll be in position to win a national title in 2019.

6. National imbalance

Aside from North Dakota State, Eastern Washington and a few other programs, not many teams jump out as obvious national title threats in 2019. The Bison are always the program to beat, but a few major losses to graduation makes them more beatable than the past two seasons. Eastern Washington returns arguably the best offensive player in the FCS in Eric Barriere, but the Eagles have a few other question marks on the roster.

The FCS is top heavy, and teams outside of the top 10 late in the season don’t stand much of a chance at winning a national championship. Unseeded teams in the playoffs rarely make deep runs, and there’s a growing gap between the top 3-5 programs in the country and the rest of the FCS. JMU, in most people’s minds, is a top 3-5 program. The CAA is extremely challenging and the FCS plays quality football, but there’s a significant gap between the depth and talent on JMU’s roster and teams outside the top 5 in preseason polls.

5. A disappointing 2018 campaign

It’s been months since JMU’s disappointing end to the 2018 campaign, but complacency shouldn’t be an issue in 2019. Expect the poor finish last season to stay in the minds of the upperclassmen on this year’s roster. After consecutive national title game appearances, JMU took a step back in 2018 and dropped four games. The Dukes return nearly every starter from the 2018 unit, and they’ll likely draw on last season’s failure to win a conference title for motivation throughout the season.

4. Wide receiver depth

JMU’s quarterback play earned a spot on this list in large part because of the wide receivers on the Dukes’ roster. Riley Stapleton headlines the group and is joined by Ezrah Archie, Josh Sims, Kyndel Dean, Brandon Polk and Dillon Spalding. Jake Brown adds additional depth and showed flashes last season.

The Dukes want a run-first attack, but the receiving group might be the team’s most explosive unit. If JMU needs a drive late in a game to tie or take the lead, it should breathe easy knowing it has an All-CAA quarterback and 5-10 talented and experienced receiving threats.

3. A commitment to the run

A solid rushing attack is critical to winning games at the FCS level, especially for a team built like JMU. In 2016, JMU ranked fifth nationally with 275 rushing yards per game. The Dukes won the national title that season. In 2017, JMU ranked 25th nationally with 194.3 rushing yards per game. The Dukes lost in the national title that season. In 2018, JMU finished the year 44th nationally in rushing with an average of 183.3 yards per game. The Dukes lost in the second round of the playoffs last year.

Houston believed in establishing the run, but the Dukes actually posted worse rushing numbers every year under his watch. While the defense improved and made the Dukes a national threat annually, JMU’s rushing attack and offense faltered during the final games of Houston’s tenure. Defenses sold out to stop the run, and the Dukes’ quarterback play was forced to lead the team to victories. That strategy worked well for JMU in 2016 and 2017 with Bryan Schor playing well, but turnovers from DiNucci kept the Dukes from making a deep playoff run in 2018.

Given Cignetti’s philosophy, which is similar to Houston’s, there’s reason to believe the Dukes and their stable of running backs can take a small step forward and get back into the top 25 in rushing yards per game. Elon finished 33rd nationally with 199.5 rushing yards per game.

If JMU runs the ball for over 200 yards per game in 2019, the game becomes easier for JMU’s quarterbacks. A successful rushing attack opens up play-action passing, which allows JMU’s numerous receiving threats to succeed. It all starts with the run.

With the entire offensive line returning and multiple running backs capable of performing at an All-CAA level, the 2019 rushing outlook looks bright.

2. Special teams

JMU boasts one of the best special team units in the country. Harry O’Kelly acts as the punter, Ethan Ratke the placekicker and D’Angelo Amos the punt returner. Jawon Hamilton is a likely option at kick returner.

In 2016, JMU finished 23rd nationally in net punting before improving to ninth in 2017 and dropping to 53rd in 2018. Although the stat is a tad misleading since punting yardage isn’t always the best measure of punting success, the Dukes can expect to move back into the top 25 in 2019 with O’Kelly punting and a great coverage team.

JMU’s kick-return defense finished third nationally last season, and its punt-return defense finished fourth. JMU covered kicks well and finished 10th nationally in yards per punt return. JMU’s special teams unit displays the ability to change games. Amos can score touchdowns, and Ratke and O’Kelly are extremely reliable.

The talk of the offseason will likely be dominated by the quarterback position, coaching changes and defensive depth, but the Dukes’ special teams unit is a crucial reason why the Dukes should be national title favorites.

1. The defense

JMU deserves its preseason hype because of its entire defense. Here’s a look at what the starting unit might look like:

  • DE: Ron’Dell Carter
  • DE: John Daka
  • DT: Adeeb Atariwa
  • DT: Mike Greene
  • LB: Landan Word
  • LB: Dimitri Holloway
  • LB/CB: Wayne Davis
  • CB: Rashad Robinson
  • CB: Charles Tutt
  • S: D’Angelo Amos
  • S: Adam Smith

JMU’s starting defense would function effectively at the majority of Group of 5 FBS teams, and there are a few Power 5 programs that would love to trade for JMU’s unit.

There’s a realistic possibility that eight or more players from JMU’s starting defense either get drafted or earn some sort of NFL tryout. I’d expect at least one of the remaining players to either make a team’s 53-man roster or earn a practice squad gig in the next 3-5 years. The defense is deep, athletic and experienced.

It’s rare that you can look at a defense and struggle to find a true weakness. Depth at defensive tackle might draw some questions, but the Dukes finished sixth in total and scoring defense last season. With nearly everyone returning and Robinson returning from injury to replace Jimmy Moreland, the Dukes boast arguably the nation’s top defensive unit.

Defense wins championships, and the Dukes deserve to be the preseason title favorite because of theirs.

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