Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Today marks four weeks until the start of JMU football’s 2019 season. Last week we continued our weekly countdown by looking at JMU’s five most interesting games this season. This week we’re going to look at why Ben DiNucci is primed for a good year.
While he takes a lot of heat among JMU fans, Ben DiNucci enters the 2019 season poised for a special senior season. The last time he took the field, DiNucci threw five interceptions in one of the worst performances of his career. JMU’s season ended, as the Dukes lost 23-20 to Colgate on a last-second field goal.
Since his last outing left a sour taste in the mouths of JMU fans, the conversation around DiNucci is either cautiously optimistic or downright negative. The conversation around DiNucci needs to include his shortcomings, but far too many fans find themselves ignoring the Pitt transfer’s positive attributes. He’s poised for a great season.
JMU doesn’t need DiNucci to be great
There will be pressure on whoever wins JMU’s quarterback job, but the quarterback won’t have to be the team’s focal point. The Dukes’ defense has the potential to be one of the best units in the FCS.
With a good defense and special teams unit, there’s rarely going to be a need for JMU’s offense to score 30+ points to win. If DiNucci lets the running game and defense do their jobs, he can stay within the framework of the offense and lead JMU to victories.
One of DiNucci’s areas for growth is turning the ball over. Without feeling like he has to do too much or take the game over, DiNucci will be able to make conservative decisions and let his playmakers do the work. That’s a recipe for success.
Despite throwing five interceptions against Colgate, DiNucci finished last season as the 27th most efficient passer. That was just one spot behind Towson’s Tom Flacco, the CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
DiNucci threw multiple interceptions in just two games last season. The Colgate loss was one of those games. He actually won CAA Offensive Player of the Week against Rhode Island the only other time he tossed multiple interceptions. He threw two interceptions but scored five total touchdowns. His performance against Colgate isn’t typical.
He threw zero interceptions in six contests last season and completed over 68% of his passes. DiNucci has proven that he can be an efficient passer. Yes, he needs to cut down on some of his turnovers and the Colgate game was awful, but he’s an efficient quarterback with respectable passing numbers. There’s a reason he earned Third Team All-CAA honors last season.
He can build off his experience
Last season marked DiNucci’s first full year as a collegiate starting quarterback. He played sporadically at Pitt and often found himself in a two-quarterback system. He had some experience prior to 2018, but last year created a foundation for a successful 2019 season.
Inconsistency hindered DiNucci, but it was his first season at JMU and his first college season as a full starter. It’s understandable that there were growing pains. If DiNucci can improve his consistency, he’s going to be one of the best offensive players in the conference.
At his best, DiNucci found the end zone five times against Rhode Island. At his worst, he threw five interceptions at Colgate. In between, he’s a solid player. He beat up on easy foes like Robert Morris, Richmond and William & Mary, but he also played well against NC State and Towson.
In the first round of the playoffs, DiNucci did exactly what JMU needed him to do. The quarterback limited errors. He finished the game 23-31 for 223 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. JMU beat Delaware in a defensive battle. If DiNucci finishes with that stat line against Colgate, JMU wins that game.
It’s not a stretch to think he could complete 60-70% of his passes for 200 yards, a touchdown or two and one or fewer turnovers in most of JMU’s 2019 games. When he threw zero interceptions, JMU was 5-1 with three wins over FCS playoff teams and a lone loss to NC State.
With a year of starting experience under his belt, DiNucci can learn from the experience and improve his decision making. Limiting turnovers is the key, and last season should serve as a learning experience.
His athletic ability
DiNucci can be a game manager, and the Dukes might want that, but he’s also an elite athlete at the quarterback position.
DiNucci led JMU in rushing touchdowns with nine last season. Five of those touchdowns came in the final four games of the season, as DiNucci became a more effective and willing runner after being hesitant during the middle of the season. His legs make him a threat to scramble and extend broken plays. He can be dynamic.
The ability to run also makes DiNucci deadly in RPO and play-action situations. Running a bootleg with DiNucci makes the defense account for the play fake, a DiNucci run and a DiNucci pass. He can give defenses fits because of what he can do on the run. He’s a tough quarterback to defend, especially if he limits turnovers.
The bottom line
There’s no doubt DiNucci needs to improve, and he can’t have games where he shoots his team in the foot. He’s also not as bad as he played in the Colgate game. DiNucci is an efficient passer with an elite array of playmakers on the outside and a stellar defense. If he limits turnovers, he’s going to post great numbers and lead a national title contender.