Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
We’ve reached the middle of August, and football season is nearly here. Unfortunately, we’re in a slow part of camp. We have a good idea of the players who will make up JMU’s starting unit, and while there’s still more clarity to be had, there aren’t going to be many major surprises between now and Aug. 31.
We’re playing the waiting game. Instead of reading through the same camp storylines (offensive line battles, DiNucci pulls ahead in the QB battle, Percy Agyei-Obese and other running backs get ready for a bigger workload), let’s look ahead to an actual football game. Don’t get me wrong, I love the camp storylines, but I think every college football fan, coach, player, media member, etc. in the country is ready for kickoff.
JMU will play a game against a Power 5 opponent with a very real chance of winning in less than three weeks. That’s exciting for JMU fans. Let’s talk about that.
JMU’s defensive line depth is concerning
The first thing that jumps out when researching this game is JMU’s lack of defensive line depth, especially with Isaac Ukwu suffering a season-ending injury. The Dukes’ starting unit of John Daka, Mike Greene, Adeeb Atariwa and Ron’Dell Carter might be the best in the FCS, but after those four, the group is thin.
Bryce Maginley, a converted linebacker, will see significant snaps as a defensive end for the first time in his career against a Power 5 squad. Antonio Colclough, a Temple transfer, may also see extended time right away to start his JMU career. Beating Power 5 offensive linemen is a tough ask for two relatively inexperienced defensive ends. Garrett Groulx seems like a strong candidate to get reps at defensive tackle, but it remains to be seen exactly what JMU will do when starters exit the middle of the defensive line.
When FCS teams upset FBS foes, their offensive and defensive lines usually hold up well. JMU’s starting defensive line shouldn’t have any issue standing firm, but when the starters come out it’s hard to have any idea what’s going to happen.
Good luck preparing
Both teams face a challenging next few weeks. How do you prepare adequately for a team with a new head coach and coordinators? Neither team is going to look the same in this game, and West Virginia’s quarterback battle is still uncertain. Coming into this game with a strong game plan seems close to impossible.
Both coaches have certain philosophies and tendencies that make it a little easier to prepare, but both sides are going to have unexpected wrinkles and packages that throw the opposing team off. The side that adjusts well and takes care of the basics (limiting penalties, winning the turnover battle, moving the line of scrimmage) will have the edge in a game that’s going to come down to executing the fundamentals. Season openers are tough.
What’s JMU’s strategy?
The Dukes were shockingly conservative against NC State last season, kicking two 19-yard field goals in a game that was within one score throughout much of the second half before the Wolfpack pulled ahead and won 24-13. Will Curt Cignetti use a similar strategy against West Virginia in 2019?
The Dukes have the defense to play conservatively and rely on their running game and special teams units. On the other hand, JMU has playmakers on the outside, and Ben DiNucci plays his best when he’s given some freedom to scramble and play aggressively. Can the Dukes find a happy medium?
Dukes’ defense is loaded
JMU’s starting unit would excel at the Group of 5 level. On paper, the starting defense is experienced and talented.
DE – Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka
DT – Mike Greene and Adeeb Atariwa
LB – Dimitri Holloway and Landan Word
CB – Rashad Robinson and Charles Tutt or Wesley McCormick
S – Adam Smith, D’Angelo Amos and Wayne Davis (LB/S hybrid)
That’s a great starting defense at the FCS level. There are three Power 5 transfers (Carter, Word and Davis) on the defense, and they all line up at different levels. They’re flanked by highly recruited and experienced FCS products. It’s a good defense with legitimate NFL prospects across the board.
Most FCS teams don’t bring defenses like JMU’s into FCS-FBS matchups. West Virginia’s uncertain offensive attack might still be the toughest offensive challenge JMU will face all season, though. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the Dukes, who held NC State to just 24 points last season, fare against a Power 5 offense.
Can JMU run the ball effectively?
The Dukes aren’t shy about wanting to run the ball. Cignetti and company want to lead the CAA, and the country, in rushing. That’s not easy to do. It’s even harder to do without Trai Sharp, Marcus Marshall and Cardon Johnson.
Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton possess the skills needed to succeed. They’re both strong, fast and can make plays as receivers. They’re going to be good. Can they be good against West Virginia?
If those two players put up solid games in the season opener, the Dukes stand a great chance of upsetting West Virginia. If JMU can’t run the ball, the pressure on Ben DiNucci and the defense amplifies. Expect JMU to use DiNucci as a runner to make the defense worry about everyone in the backfield.
Expect a fun game
JMU returns nearly every starter from a playoff team that spent much of the season ranked inside the FCS top 10. Most early polls have the Dukes inside the top 5 entering this season.
West Virginia, on the other hand, lost its starting quarterback and its coach. The Mountaineers are expected to have a down year for their standards, but they still have talented athletes, a great new coach, home-field advantage and 22 more scholarships.
There are a lot of unknowns with this game, but we do know one thing. We’re due for an intriguing season opener.