Ranking JMU Football’s Defensive Position Groups

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU’s defense returns talented players at every position groups. Several Dukes look to take on the NFL in future years, but first, this group has its sights set on a national title.

Most media outlets expect the Dukes to excel defensively, but what is it that makes this group so exciting? Let’s look through each position group to determine what makes this group special. I ranked the Dukes’ offensive position groups, now it’s time to rank the defensive groups. I’m breaking the defense down into five groups, like I did for the offense.

5. Defensive tackle

Top dogs: Mike Greene and Adeeb Atariwa

Greene and Atariwa are entrenched as starters in the middle of the defensive line. They’re both listed between 277 and 285 lbs, which is solid size for FCS defensive tackles. Both players are athletic and capable of stopping the run and getting after the passer. If they stay healthy, they’ll be a force in the CAA.

Rising stars: Jalen Greene

Greene’s position isn’t all that clear, as the true freshman could serve as a defensive end if needed. For a true freshman, he’s extremely talented and could quickly become one of JMU’s best young defenders. JMU has a need for defensive tackle depth, so he may find himself on the field a lot in 2019.

Added depth: Semaj Sorhaindo, Tony Thurston, Joe Worman, James Carpenter and Garrett Groulx

Sorhaindo and Groulx seem like the most likely guys to see the field in 2019. They’re both redshirt sophomores with ideal size. Sorhaindo is 283 lbs, while Groulx is 260 lbs. Both guys have experience in the program, which should serve them well as they hope to find the field consistently.

Thurston, a former high school wrestler, may also battle for playing time. He checks in at 260 lbs and found himself on the field a few times last season during his true freshman campaign. He’s a redshirt freshman entering 2019.

Questions and concerns

Depth is the biggest concern. Greene and Atariwa are proven commodities, but there are questions about what some of the younger players will contribute.

Why this group is ranked here

Questions about depth place this unit at No. 5. While Greene and Atariwa are some of the best in the conference, an injury to one of them could hurt the Dukes’ ability to consistently stop the run.

4. Cornerbacks

Top dogs: Rashad Robinson and Charles Tutt

Robinson’s resume includes about every accolade you can imagine. The redshirt senior corner enters 2019 as one of the best defenders in the country, and a strong season could put Robinson into the conversation as a Day 1 or Day 2 pick in the NFL Draft. He’s returning from injury, but he owns a bigger frame than most FCS corners and his ball skills are solid.

Tutt, who has battled injuries throughout his JMU career, is finally healthy. He excelled as last season progressed, and there’s reason to believe he can shut down receivers at the No. 2 corner spot.

Rising stars: Wesley McCormick and Taurus Carroll

While both players are juniors, they’re still rising stars in my book. They’re the most likely options to see time behind Robinson and Tutt. Both players have game experience, and they’re ready to take on bigger roles. These guys aren’t well known by JMU fans, but they will be in the coming seasons.

Added depth: Jamari Currence, Jack Sroba, Willie Drew, Rakeem Davis and Michael Johnson

Currence and Drew are two star redshirt freshmen. They may see time primarily on special teams this season, but they’ll eventually carve out bigger rolls in the defense. The other guys are good depth pieces and special teams options.

Questions and concerns

How will McCormick and Carroll respond to slightly increased roles? Will Rashad Robinson return to peak form following last year’s injury? Can Tutt stay healthy for a full season as the No. 2 corner?

There are questions, but there shouldn’t be a ton of concern with this group. Cignetti and his defensive staff should feel confident using a handful of the guys at this position group, which is impressive.

Why this group is ranked here

The rest of the defense is that good. There aren’t any major issues with the corner position, but other areas on defense have even fewer question marks related to health and depth.

3. Defensive end

Top dogs: Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka

This might be the best pair of defensive ends in the country. Carter and Daka are monsters on the outside, and both are solid against the run and the pass. Daka is the more athletic pass rusher, but Carter is the more versatile of the two players. Carter can line up at defensive end or defensive tackle because of his size and strength. Both have NFL aspirations.

In 2018, the duo combined for 105 tackles, 30 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. They also added three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. They’re a scary tandem for opposing offenses.

Rising stars: Isaac Ukwu

By many accounts, Ukwu is John Daka with a different name. He brings the same intensity off the edge, and he’s going to be a pass rushing machine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the redshirt sophomore join both Daka and Carter on the field in third-and-long situations. He’s not a household name, but Ukwu is poised for breakout season.

Added depth: Bryce Maginley, Antonio Colclough, Mike Wilcox, Drake Tomasi, Sean Johns and Carlo Johns

Maginley might be the most interesting of the group. The senior started his career at safety before transitioning to linebacker. Now, he’s working with the defensive end group. His athleticism and size — he checks in at 235 lbs and spent time playing safety — makes him an ideal candidate to play as a reserve.

Colclough is another interesting prospect. The redshirt freshman is a transfer from Temple, and he may find the field as a reserve as well.

Questions and concerns

The size of the defensive line is mildly concerning, especially when it comes to depth. After Carter, the defensive ends are in the 225-240 lb range. That’s not bad for an FCS group, but some of the most physical teams on the Dukes’ schedule will try to attack the edges running the ball. How will the defensive ends hold up against a team like West Virginia or someone like NDSU late in the postseason?

Overall, the defensive line’s size shouldn’t be considered a major concern. JMU has a few big guys in the middle, and Carter comes in at near 270 lbs. While the other guys have weights closer to linebackers, they’re mostly made of muscle. They’re explosive for 230 lbs, and they’re elite pass rushers. The Dukes shouldn’t have an issue stopping the run, despite using a few players under 250 lbs.

Why this group is ranked here

This group is stacked, especially when it comes to its starting lineup. A couple other position groups have more proven depth, which is why I have this unit at No. 3.

2. Linebackers

Top dogs: Dimitri Holloway and Landan Word

Holloway and Word are two of the nation’s best linebackers. They’re both tackling machines with solid size. Holloway runs a bit faster than Word, and he tackles everything in his way. Word, who started his career at Virginia, is a bit taller and his frame is wider, which makes him a fascinating FCS prospect.

Both guys are experienced and make the middle of JMU’s defense intimidating. Expect each guy to get close to, or eclipse, 100 tackles this season.

Rising stars: Mateo Jackson, Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey and Julio Ayamel

Jackson saw meaningful time as a freshman. Tucker-Dorsey has seen time on special teams and plays with a similar energy to Robert Carter Jr. Ayamel enters 2019 as a highly-touted freshman from Maryland. All three guys are going to make major impacts over the next three seasons, even if they don’t start this season.

Added depth: Mike Cobbs, Tabb Patrick, Taurus Jones and Kelvin Azanama

Cobbs is a senior who spent most of his career at safety. He’s athletic and experienced, which makes him a perfect backup. Azanama is underrated. The redshirt junior has been in the program for three seasons, and he’s earned his stripes on special teams and the practice squad. If he doesn’t break out this season, he will in 2020. Patrick adds depth as a senior, and Jones is a good freshman who will look to learn from his peers in 2019.

Questions and concerns

There aren’t many. There’s a drop off in terms of experience once you move past Holloway and Word, but there are several reserves capable of performing at a high level.

Why this group is ranked here

The top dogs are elite, and there’s good depth at the position. There’s a bit of a drop off from the top two guys to the next few players, which is why we place the linebackers at No. 2 rather than No. 1. Overall, this group is stacked.

1. Safeties

Top dogs: Wayne Davis, Adam Smith and D’Angelo Amos

Another position, another legitimate case for being the best defensive position group in the FCS. Davis is the most versatile of the three safeties. He played a hybrid role last season, serving as a linebacker and a corner. He can cover, he can blitz and he can help in run support. The Ohio State transfer is the real deal.

Smith and Amos are both solid safeties. Amos gets recognition for his punt return skills, but he’s a good safety as well. Smith doesn’t make mistakes. He’s athletic, and he’s also a player with a high football IQ who always seems to be in the correct position.

This trio is electric.

Rising stars: Que Reid

The redshirt freshman is poised to become a future star on JMU’s defense. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he has solid closing speed and he hits hard. After a redshirt season, Reid should be ready to make plays on special teams for the Dukes. In a few years, he’ll likely be a starter.

Added depth: Jordan White, Ricky Harleston, MJ Hampton, Sam Kidd, Chris Chukwuneke, Quint Boyd, Reggie McNeill and Francis Meehan

Hampton and Kidd are great special teamers. White is a talented true freshman. It’s a solid group with an abundance of young talent.

Questions and concerns

How can you get all of the safeties on the field? That’s the biggest question with this group. There’s a ton of talent, and you can only put 11 guys on the field at a time. Will Davis, Smith and Amos all see the field at the same time? They might have to given their respective talent levels.

The only minor concern in 2018 was the lack of takeaways, but adding Davis to the position group helps. Amos and Smith should improve with experience. Expect them both to look more comfortable making plays on the ball this season. This trio should eclipse their 2018 total of five combined interceptions in 2019.

Why this group is ranked here

The top unit ranks right up there with the best groups in the country. It’s the depth and special teams experience that pushes this group over the top. Amos might be the best punt returner in the country. Hampton and Kidd are kickoff coverage specialists, and Reid is ready to see a bigger role. The depth and talent at safety is ridiculous.

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