Ranking JMU Football’s Offensive Position Groups

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU football enters the 2019 season with a defense expected to be one of the nation’s best. The offense returns more than 10 guys with meaningful game experience, but questions remain. Can the offensive line become dominant? How will the wide receivers get through the first three weeks without Riley Stapleton? Which running backs will lead the way?

To add some clarity to the offense’s situation, let’s rank JMU’s offensive position groups. I’ve separated the offense into five groups, and we’ll do the same with the defense in the coming days. I could’ve split the offensive line into two groups, but I believe the five-group system is the easiest way to break down JMU’s roster.

5. Running back

Top dogs: Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton

Agyei-Obese and Hamilton will serve as JMU’s two featured backs in 2019. Both Dukes could’ve had starting roles last season, but JMU’s running back room was extremely crowded. With three talented seniors graduated, it’s time for Agyei-Obese and Hamilton to handle the brunt of the workload.

Rising stars: Austin Douglas, Latrele Palmer and CJ Jackson

These three freshmen enter JMU with tremendous hype. Douglas is arguably the most complete back of the group, while Palmer is an ideal short-yardage option. Jackson, who missed his final high school season with an injury, is a big play threat who is quick in space. The trio complements each other, which should pay dividends down the road.

Added depth: Solomon Vanhorse and Eric Kirlew

Don’t discount either player from earning some carries. Vanhorse had a great spring, and Kirlew has shown flashes over the years in practice. It’s unlikely that either player earns a major role, but it wouldn’t be stunning if Vanhorse won the third running back spot.

Questions and concerns

There’s no denying this position group’s talent, but the experience isn’t there. Hamilton spent time as a starter at UCF, but he’s been banged up since then. Agyei-Obese owns game experience, but he’s never been called on to be a feature back. Will any of the three freshmen be ready to step up this early in their careers?

Why this group is ranked here

JMU’s running back position is loaded with talent. By the end of the season, this group could easily be the strength of the offense. I expect at least one of the three running backs to play a critical role in the offense, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see all three find the end zone at some point this year. Fans should be excited about this group.

On the flip side, almost every other offensive position has more returning experience than the running back spot. For that reason, we’ve put this group at No. 5.

4. Offensive line

Top dogs: Liam Fornadel, Mac Patrick, Jahee Jackson, Zaire Bethea and Raymond Gillespie

This group makes a strong case to be the starting unit, with Fornadel and Patrick being the most locked into the starting group. I expect Jackson and Bethea to also start. There’s some question as to whether or not Gillespie will be a starter, but he’ll see meaningful snaps at the very least. This unit is experienced and talented.

Rising stars: Nick Kidwell

This group could easily include a few other names, but by all accounts the redshirt freshman is on his way to becoming the face of JMU’s offensive line. He’s bigger than most, and he’s a physical presence the Dukes could really use on the line. He’s listed as 50 lbs heavier than Gillespie, although Gillespie’s long arms and tall frame make him a fascinating prospect in his own right.

Added depth: Joe Fishpaw, Tanner Morris, Kyle Smith, J.T. Timming, Henry Somerville, Truvell Wilson, Henry Schroeder, Will Clevinger, Sammy Junco and Jack Glavin

Several of these players will earn meaningful playing time this season. Fishpaw, Wilson and Glavin stand as players who could see starts in 2019. J.T. Timming may also earn important snaps. There’s good depth along the offensive line, and I think Cignetti and company will feel comfortable starting 7-10 of these guys.

Questions and concerns

Can this group dominant defensive lines? This unit is experienced. This unit is talented. This unit is deep. Even with those attributes, the offensive line underwhelmed in 2018. After a couple years of mauling CAA fronts, CAA fronts pushed back. DiNucci found himself under duress, and the rushing attack struggled despite three senior elite backs.

If the group dominates in 2019, the Dukes may celebrate a national title in Frisco. If it doesn’t, a deep postseason run seems unlikely.

Why this group is ranked here

The experience moves the offensive line past the running backs in my ranking, but last year’s showing leaves me confused. This group is big, strong, talented and experienced. Why aren’t they destroying CAA defensive fronts?

There are questions around how dominant this group will be, which is why I put them at No. 4 on this list.

3. Quarterback

Top dog: Ben DiNucci

The Pitt transfer and Third Team All-CAA quarterback returns, and all signs are pointing to DiNucci earning the starting gig. He’s the best scrambler among the quarterbacks, and he has the arm talent to make nearly every throw asked of him. His biggest issue is turnovers.

DiNucci scored 25 touchdowns in 2018, but tossed 12 interceptions and wasn’t the most secure ball handler when running. When he takes care of the ball, he’s an elite player. When he doesn’t, JMU gets outplayed by teams like New Hampshire and Colgate.

Rising star: Gage Moloney

Moloney has been dubbed the future of JMU football. The redshirt sophomore is big, athletic and talented. He won South Carolina’s Mr. Football in 2016 and was a three-star recruit coming out of high school. He played in three games last season but likely needs to wait a year or more to earn the starting job.

Added depth: Cole Johnson, Patrick Bentley, Jake O’Donnell and Jacob Knight

Cole Johnson seems likely to earn the No. 2 quarterback position. The redshirt junior knows what it’s like to be a backup quarterback, as he’s played in at least four games in each of his three seasons on the team. He can make all the throws, but his running ability isn’t quite as dynamic as DiNucci or Moloney’s. He does run well for his size, though.

The other quarterbacks add depth, but it would be surprising to see any of those quarterbacks take the field this season, barring major injury setbacks.

Questions and concerns

Can JMU’s starting quarterback take care of the football? It’s pretty simple. The Dukes need to limit turnovers to have a shot at a CAA title.

Why this group is ranked here

DiNucci earned Third Team All-CAA honors last season despite being turnover happy. Cole Johnson is a proven backup quarterback and Moloney’s talent is undeniable. The Dukes have the weapons at quarterback, they just need to take care of the ball. With three starting caliber quarterbacks, this group could be No. 1. The turnover woes push this group to No. 3.

2. Wide receiver

Top dogs: Riley Stapleton, Kyndel Dean and Brandon Polk

When Stapleton returns from his three-game suspension, he’s JMU’s No. 1 option. Dean is the No. 1 threat on the outside with Stapleton out, and he’ll slide to No. 2 when Stapleton returns. With his speed, I see Polk earning a starting role out of the slot.

Rising stars: Jake Brown, Ezrah Archie and Josh Sims

This group is solid, and all three guys can play from inside positions if needed. Brown and Archie are better adept to go outside, but Sims’ quickness from the slot is enticing. It’s a great group of young stars.

Added depth: Jamir Hudson, Reggie Brown, Kris Thornton, John Finney, Devin Ravenel, Alex Miller, Davis Patterson, Kevin Curry Jr., Dillon Spalding and Daniel Adu

Of this group, I see Ravenel, Patterson, Spalding and Adu as the most likely to contribute in 2019. Thornton, a VMI transfer, is solid but will sit out this season due to transfer rules. Brown and Curry Jr. are dark horses to see the field, as both are talented players. Hudson possesses nice attributes as well, but it’s going to be tough to earn time in the slot this season.

Questions and concerns

How will the team cope without Stapleton against West Virginia? That’s the big early season question. After that obvious question, fans should keep a close eye on the players in the “added depth” category. Which of those guys will stand out during camp and nonconference play to earn meaningful reps in CAA action?

Why this group is ranked here

With Stapleton, this group is loaded. Without him, it’s still loaded. The combination of talent and experience is impressive. There are still questions with some of the young receivers, however, and even players like Brandon Polk have things to prove at the college level.

If the group reaches its full potential, it can dominate CAA defenses. If it doesn’t, it should still be one of the 3-5 best groups in the conference.

1. Tight end

Top dogs: Dylan Stapleton, Clayton Cheatham and Nick Carlton

This group is arguably the best in the FCS. Every one of these three players can block and catch at a high level. Stapleton is a dynamic red-zone threat, while Cheatham’s speed and shiftiness make him the best open field runner of the three. He can serve as a fullback/H-back given his size and pass-catching ability. Carlton is the closest of the three to a wide receiver, as his speed and hands are among the best in the tight end group.

JMU is one of the few FCS teams that can effectively use multiple tight ends at a time in 2019. These three guys can also line up in the slot and make plays across the middle of the field. They’re a tough cover for linebackers, and they can overpower corners in the running game. It’s a versatile unit.

Rising star: Hunter Bullock

The freshman owns good hands and a great frame for blocking. He likely won’t see major time in 2019, but his future is bright.

Added depth: Drew Painter

A defensive lineman last season, the sophomore may see time as a blocker in JMU’s system. He’s a strong guy, but switching positions will pose challenges. He’s clearly the No. 4 or No. 5 option at tight end. If injuries occur, he’s more than capable of playing well in the second or third tight end spot given his size and work ethic.

Questions and concerns

Can the “top dogs” stay healthy? If those three avoid injury, it could be a special season for the tight ends.

Why this group is ranked here

Of JMU’s position groups, the tight end group enters the season with the most legitimate argument that it’s the best unit in the FCS. Carlton, Cheatham and Stapleton could start on several FBS teams, but two of them will find themselves as reserves for the Dukes. It’s a talented group with meaningful game experience.

JMU wants to lead the nation in rushing, which means the Dukes will also showcase their fair share of play-action passing as defenses crowd the box expecting the run. Look for the tight ends to feast on FCS defenses in the play-action passing game. They’ll also play a key role in the running game, as their blocking will be crucial.

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