Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Today marks eight weeks until the start of JMU football’s 2019 season. Last week we continued our weekly countdown to the start of season by sharing nine players poised for breakout 2019 campaigns. This week we’ll take a look at eight pressing questions facing the Dukes heading into this season.
Who earns the starting quarterback job?
We’ll start with the big one. JMU needs to figure out its quarterback depth chart in the coming weeks. Will incumbent starter Ben DiNucci retain the position, or will Cole Johnson or Gage Maloney unseat the Pitt transfer?
DiNucci earned Third-Team All-CAA honors last season, and he’s a dual threat quarterback with good experience. Johnson offers a strong arm but less running ability, and Maloney is widely considered the future face of JMU football. Will Maloney live up to the hype this early in his career or will he continue to wait his turn?
It’s too early to accurately predict who will win the job, although DiNucci likely enters fall camp as the small favorite given his previous experience and proven on-field ability.
How will the team adjust to the new coaching staff?
Curt Cignetti takes the head coaching duties from Mike Houston, and he brings with him a new group of coaches. From the strength coach to the offensive coordinator to the defensive coordinator, the players must adjust to new faces leading the team.
Given JMU’s returning talent — 20 starters return — the Dukes find themselves in a good position. It’s unlikely that JMU struggles in 2019, but it might take the Dukes some time to get up to speed with the new coaches. The Dukes play West Virginia to open the season, and face a challenging three-week road stretch against Chattanooga, Elon and Stony Brook from Sept. 21 – Oct. 5.
If the Dukes struggle out of the gates, they could be looking at multiple losses before October. If the Dukes click under Cignetti and company, they could be 6-0 with three massive road wins and an FBS upset or 5-1 with three crucial road victories. JMU’s schedule isn’t easy, so the Dukes need to gel quickly.
Will the Dukes’ offense be more aggressive in 2019?
JMU’s coaching staff avoided risks at all costs in 2018. The Dukes played to their defensive and special teams strengths, which resulted in going for it on fourth down at an extremely low rate. While there’s something to be said for playing the field position battle and relying on your defense, JMU’s overall strategy was too conservative in 2018.
Against NC State the Dukes kicked a pair of 19-yard field goals in a game that was decided in the fourth quarter. Against Stony Brook the Dukes barely survived a home upset after relying on their defensive and a few field goals from Tyler Gray.
In the loss to Colgate, JMU attempted to be more aggressive at the end with a poorly-timed fake punt. At a time when the Dukes likely should’ve been conservative, they pulled the trigger on a decision that gave Colgate the momentum.
While it only attempted seven fourth-down conversions on the season, North Dakota State led the country in fourth-down conversion percentage at 85.7%. The Bison converted six of their seven attempts. Eastern Washington, the other national championship game participant, only converted on fourth down at a 42.3% clip, but the Eagles rolled the dice on fourth down 26 times.
When JMU won the national title in 2016, the Dukes attempted 21 fourth-down conversions and converted 12 times. When JMU made the national title in 2017, the Dukes attempted 14 fourth-down conversions and were successful on seven of those tries. The Dukes went for it on fourth down just six times in 2018 and found success on three of those attempts.
Going for it on fourth down doesn’t cause success, but JMU finishing 18th nationally in scoring at 33.9 points per game won’t cut it this season. Against five ranked opponents, JMU averaged a meager 23 points per game. Whether it’s through play calling or fourth-down attempts, JMU needs to be more aggressive in 2019.
How will the defensive tackles hold up throughout the season?
Nobody doubts the ability of Mike Greene or Adeeb Atariwa, but defensive tackle depth is a question mark with Paris Black leaving the program. Who will step up behind Greene and Atariwa as solid run stopper in the middle of the defensive line?
JMU ranked 10th in rushing defense last season, only allowing 104.4 yards per game. The Dukes want to win by running the ball and stopping the run. If JMU’s defensive tackles can’t dominate the point of contact, it becomes difficult to stop the run. If the Dukes find solid depth behind their starters, they could break into the top 5 nationally in rushing defense.
Can JMU perform better in the red zone?
Last season, the Dukes ranked 32nd nationally in red-zone scoring. They converted 69 red-zone trips into 59 scores, including 37 touchdowns. Their scoring percentage tied that of Eastern Washington. Unfortunately for JMU, it didn’t have nearly the offensive firepower as Eastern Washington and settled for far too many field goals.
The red zone was where JMU needed to be most efficient, and the Dukes only turned red-zone trips into touchdowns 53.6% of the time. North Dakota State, on the other hand, turned its 63 red-zone appearances into touchdowns 77.7% of the time. JMU found itself in the red zone a few more times than North Dakota State, but it settled for field goals far too often.
On the bright side for JMU fans, Curt Cignetti and Elon finished fourth nationally in red-zone scoring percentage. Unfortunately, the Phoenix only scored touchdowns on 54.3% of their trips. If JMU expects to contend for the national title in 2019, the Dukes need to score touchdowns on more than 60% of their red-zone drives.
Will JMU’s offensive line become a dominant force?
JMU expected to run the ball well in 2018 with a group of great running backs, but the Dukes struggled to run the ball effectively despite offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick’s commitment to handing the ball off. Although the running backs weren’t perfect in 2018, the offensive line didn’t dominate the line of scrimmage, which was the primary cause for a less-than-stellar rushing attack.
North Dakota State (286.2) and Eastern Washington (255.9) were two of the country’s most potent rushing offenses, whereas JMU finished 44th nationally with 183.3 yards per game. The Dukes (4.67) averaged nearly two yards less per carry than both NDSU (6.41) and EWU (6.62).
With its entire offensive line returning, the Dukes hope to become a dominant rushing attack. If the offensive line clicks and leads a powerful running game, the Dukes will be an improved red-zone team and a legitimate national title contender.
It’s not a sexy discussion point, but JMU’s offensive line holds the keys to the Dukes’ season.
Can the Dukes improve their turnover margin in 2019?
JMU tied for 64th nationally in average turnover margin in 2018. For the first time under Mike Houston, the Dukes finished with a negative turnover margin. JMU turned the ball over 24 times and only forced 23 turnovers.
During the 2016-17 national championship season, the Dukes were eighth nationally in the category. They finished third in the country during the 2017-18 season, which saw them gain eight more turnovers (44 total) than any other team in the nation. Last season, the Dukes didn’t create the same defensive havoc.
Eastern Washington also committed 24 turnovers in 2018, but forced 34 of its own to finish 16th nationally in average turnover margin. NDSU finished fourth nationally in average turnover margin and second nationally in total turnover margin with a mark of +19. Winning a national championship with a negative turnover margin is close to impossible, and the Dukes were awful in the category in their four 2018 defeats.
- NC State: JMU tied the turnover battle 1-1 and lost 24-13.
- Elon: JMU lost the turnover battle 2-0 and lost 27-24.
- New Hampshire: JMU lost the turnover battled 6-0 and lost 35-24.
- Colgate: JMU lost the turnover battle 5-1 and lost 23-20.
In their four losses, JMU had a -12 turnover margin and still only lost the four games by an average of seven points. The Dukes were giving up three possessions per loss and only losing by a touchdown. Winning the turnover margin, and avoiding comically bad performances like those against UNH and Colgate, will be a key to a deep postseason run.
The turnover conversation will also factor into the Dukes’ quarterback decision. Whoever wins the job will need to limit turnovers to be effective.
How will the Dukes use their running backs?
In addition to inconsistent offensive line play, a massive running back by committee approach hurt the Dukes’ rushing attack in 2018. There’s an argument to be made that relying so much on Trai Sharp, Marcus Marshall and Cardon Johnson kept the backs from getting into the flow of the game. Coupled with the team’s refusal to occasionally roll the dice on fourth down, the offense’s rhythm looked choppy and disjointed at times.
Will the Dukes elect to use Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton significantly more than the other backs, or will Cignetti and company opt to split time equally between 3-5 backs every game? Much of the running game’s success will depend on the performance of the offensive line, but it will be fascinating to see how Cignetti and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery elect to use their talented backfield.