Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick and Chase Kiddy
It’s October, and the JMU football season is getting into full swing. As the games get more important and the action heats up, we want to provide a weekly article to prepare readers for each game.
With that in mind, we’re excited to introduce a weekly JMU football roundtable discussion that will publish each Friday prior to a JMU game. The discussion will feature myself (Bennett Conlin), Jack Fitzpatrick and Chase Kiddy. We may also sprinkle a few guests in from time to time.
If you have any feedback or want to request any special JMU football roundtable guests, shoot us an email at JMUSportsNews@gmail.com or post a suggestion in the comment section below the article. Let’s get to it!
Q: JMU’s special teams unit has drawn critical remarks from fans in recent weeks. Is it fair to blame special teams coach Grant Cain for the lackluster play out of the unit?
Jack Fitzpatrick, JMU Sports News: Yes and no. Roy Tesh, the special teams coach under Houston, was arguably one of the best special team coaches in the FCS, so of course, there will be a step back when someone new comes in. Tesh developed SEVEN all-CAA special team performers, and his teams averaged 20.32 punt return yards and 21.35 kick off return yards.
Now with Grant Cain, the real problem has been punts. JMU’s kickoff return yards average is at 29.25 this season, but punt returns are averaging just 5.75 yards per return. They have fielded 12 punts this season for a total of 69 yards.
The real problem is D’Angelo Amos. He has muffed three punts this season, against WVU, Chattanooga and Elon. When there is a returner that can’t field the ball well, it is going to mess everything up. The blame can fall back on Amos more than Cain since Cain’s philosophy is clearly working on the kickoff with those returners. I believe Amos is trying to do too much with each return and is, therefore, getting ahead of himself and that is creating these problems, not Cain.
Bennett Conlin, JMU Sports News: I wrote the question, so I have only myself to blame, but I don’t love this question. The special teams play hasn’t been lackluster.
Jack correctly pointed out the issues with the punt return unit, and that group looks a bit lost through five games, but every other aspect of special teams has performed fairly well.
There have been mistakes, though. The errors against West Virginia — a muffed punt and a blocked field goal — have been critiqued extensively. A muffed kickoff against Chattanooga was also concerning, as were the other muffed punts. I won’t deny that JMU’s special teams unit has been inconsistent and made mistakes, but it’s performing exceptionally well in other areas.
JMU ranks in the top 10 nationally in both kickoff return average and net punting. Ethan Ratke is 9-12 on field goals, and kickoff coverage ranks 26th nationally. The unit is fine, despite a few sloppy mistakes.
The unit as a whole has performed well, and it’s a few individual mistakes that keep costing JMU. Look for Grant Cain to help get those fixed as CAA play ramps up.
Chase Kiddy, FCS expert, JMU genius, podcasting guru: First and foremost, I share Jack’s assessment that former coordinator Roy Tesh was an elite special teams manager. JMU consistently has one of the best special units in FCS partly because of how deep the team is relative to the rest of the subdivision, but it’s also because Tesh is consistently described as a really high-level coordinator. That’s definitely a big factor.
Past that, we can talk about complex blocking schemes, protection shields, and niche strategies all we want, but if returners can’t cleanly field balls, special teams is a minus contributor. D’Angelo Amos is a worthy KR/PR All-American because of his athleticism and his field vision, but if he can’t hold onto the ball, the staff should field someone who can. Amos has earned a long leash, but in my opinion, he’s running out of chances. Let’s see how October unfolds.
Q: Ben DiNucci’s numbers suggest he’s one of the most efficient passers in the country. The redshirt senior started hot last season. Can DiNucci sustain his current performance level through the rest of the regular season?
Jack: C’mon you know my answer to this. I believe I founded the DiNucci fan club. So, in short, yes, of course, he can.
IF (I hate the if game in sports but I’m going to play it here regardless) you throw out the Colgate and UNH games last season he threw for 2,059 yards and just six interceptions, with a 69.7 completion percentage. He was very efficient last season and outplayed Tom Flacco at Flacco’s house.
I believe DiNucci will continue this success through the season and as long as his running game and offensive line can maintain at least some of the success they have seen in the last few weeks, DiNucci can easily lead the Dukes back to Frisco. DiNucci has more time this season and is making the right decisions, and he has deep throw accuracy consistently, something we didn’t see all that often last season. So he has all the tools to continue it deep into this season.
Bennett: Ben DiNucci is one of the better quarterbacks in the FCS, and he’s exceptionally efficient. He’s completing over 71% of his passes, and he has just one interception on the season. He’s yet to throw an INT against FCS foes.
While I don’t expect him to throw zero interceptions the rest of the way, I do believe he can sustain his current performance level. In fact, I expect him to start scoring more touchdowns — he has just eight total touchdowns through five games — and throwing for 250 yards or more in many of the next few weeks.
While Stony Brook, Villanova and Towson are all quality opponents, they aren’t great against the pass. Stony Brook ranks 10th in the CAA in passing defense, while Towson and Villanova rank sixth and 12th, respectively.
JMU faces challenging tests the next few weeks, but it’s not really Ben DiNucci who is going to be tested. Look for him to actually post better touchdown and yardage numbers over the next month.
Chase: Ben is a little bit like LeBron James — we can acknowledge his overall talent, while also recognizing that his 2011 Finals against the Mavericks was inexplicably bad.
DiNucci has some dark spots on his resume that guys like Bryan Schor and Rodney Landers simply never had. Regardless, he’s been really good this year, piling up mouth-watering efficiency stats that most college football teams would kill for. During my time around the team, Mike Houston and OC Donnie Kirkpatrick were always trying to get Ben to understand that he didn’t have to go out and win the game, since modern JMU teams have been absolutely loaded with talent. It feels like he’s finally internalized that — short of one bad play in Morgantown that arguably wasn’t even his fault, DiNucci really hasn’t made any truly bad plays all season. He has another great opportunity to impress this weekend, against a Stony Brook defense that absolutely deserves all the hype it gets and more.
Shameless plug: if you’re looking for more on Ben DiNucci, I did a short rant about this on the most recent episode of my podcast, Master of None. Executive Summary: Ben DiNucci haters are officially canceled. Don’t @ me.
Q: What are your thoughts on JMU continuing to use its running back by committee approach? Should the Dukes settle on one or two main backs?
Jack: We’ve talked about this on the podcast a few times, and I stand by what I said then. I don’t like the committee approach. I would like to see Percy Agyei-Obese become the workhorse with about 15-20 carries a game and fill in the rest with Solomon Vanhorse or Jawon Hamilton. I believe that will get them in a good rhythm and we will see more big plays and consistent running.
However, the Dukes running game looks very, very potent with Latrele Palmer now in the mix. Really, the biggest key is the offensive line. They have looked good as of late and that is most important, even more important than who is in the backfield. If the line is creating a good push and opening up holes, Curt Cignetti could put me back there and I may average 5 yards per carry.
Bennett: Using a running back by committee approach is growing on me. If JMU’s offensive line blocks like it did against Elon, I could join Jack in the backfield and rush for 50 yards and a touchdown. That’s not true, as I would break like a toothpick if anyone over 180 lbs tackled me, but you get the point.
JMU’s line exerted its dominance over Elon’s defensive front. If that continues, JMU should keep rolling with 3-5 backs.
Given JMU’s talent at running back, I think they almost need to play 3-5 guys. It makes no sense to keep players like Vanhorse, Agyei-Obese, Hamilton, Douglas or Palmer on the bench. While one of the freshmen may sit from time to time, the first three backs listed should all play in every game the rest of the way if they’re healthy. They’re too good to sit out.
Chase: This might be a cop out, but Cignetti really understands rush offense. If he feels like the jumbo committee is the way to go, who am I to tell him he’s wrong? My only concern is that a guy like Percy, who patiently waited his turn in the back of a loaded running back room in 2018, might be just a tad disappointed that his workload isn’t a little higher this season. But if he’s good with it, I am too. You certainly can’t argue with the results so far, especially after a game like last week.
Q: What’s JMU’s biggest weakness through five weeks?
Jack: Secondary, no doubt. It gets covered up a bit since the defensive line is giving opposing QBs about 0.2 seconds to get rid of the ball, but if a quarterback gets more time they can shred the secondary.
Against the three tough teams JMU has played (WVU, Chatt and Elon) they have allowed 205 yards per game and touchdowns through the air. That number could be a lot higher if WVU’s quarterback, Austin Kendall, hit his throws in the first half or if Elon’s quarterback, Davis Cheek, didn’t have receivers with bricks for hands. There have been a good amount of missed opportunities against this Dukes secondary, and they are prone to giving up the big play as we saw by Elon’s second play from scrimmage.
The secondary is what keeps me up at night when thinking about this team. It isn’t DiNucci and his decision making or the offensive line and if they can hold blocks. It is without a doubt this secondary, and now with Rashad Robinson continuing to have some injuries, I am even more worried. The Dukes don’t have a true No. 2 corner to fill in for Robinson if he goes down again.
Bennett: I agree with Jack. The secondary jumps out as the biggest weakness, but I’m not sure how large a weakness it really is.
Yes, the Dukes are yielding some passing yards, but of course teams are going to rack up passing yardage when JMU leads by 20+ in the second half. Passing is the only way to come back and have a chance.
After giving up a long touchdown to Elon to start the game, I thought JMU’s secondary improved as the game went on. Elon dropped a handful of perfectly thrown passes in that game, but the secondary still played solid football.
I do think JMU’s secondary is its biggest weakness right now, but that’s also because I don’t really think JMU has a glaring weaknesses through five games. The secondary has question marks, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Chase: Inability to create turnovers. JMU’s offense once again looks methodical, efficient, and multi-faceted, but one of the biggest strengths of the Houston-era teams was how incredible Bob Trott’s defenses were at generating bonus possessions. That 2017 defense picked teams apart like a group of vultures on a European battlefield — Rashad Robinson, Raven Greene, Jordan Brown, and Jimmy Moreland all ranked nationally for INTs, and there were plenty of fumbles thrown into the mix as well.
Right now JMU ranks outside the top 50 in turnover margin, tied with teams like Gardner-Webb, Delaware State, and Brown. JMU is good enough to win a national championship by just relying on a machine-like offense and a dominant defensive front, but I think the turnovers are the biggest cause for concern. If nothing else, it’s a combination of the other two issues that have already been discussed here — turnovers on special teams, and a secondary that isn’t dominating people like we’ve seen in the past.
Q: Let’s get hypothetical. If JMU could steal one player from another CAA team, who would you add to the Dukes?
Jack: I would say Momodou Mbye, a defensive back from Rhode Island. Through four games this season he has four interceptions, a forced fumble, 27 tackles and one tackle for loss. He reminds me of Jimmy Moreland and teaming Mbye up with Robinson would make me not worry about the secondary and would create arguably one of the best corner tandems in FCS football.
Bennett: This comes down to whether you want to steal a player for a JMU team need or if you’re just looking for a dynamic playmaker. Adding a quality defensive lineman or cornerback for depth makes the most sense, but I’ll go with Rhode Island wide receiver Aaron Parker.
Parker is one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the CAA, and he’s averaging 148 receiving yards per game through four games. He actually had his worst statistical game of the season last week against Stony Brook, finishing with only five catches for 80 yards. He added two touchdowns. That’s his worst game (in terms of catches and yards) of the season. He’s insane.
He has four touchdowns on the year. While JMU certainly doesn’t need another receiver, adding him into the mix gives JMU the best group of offensive weapons in the CAA.
Chase: Parker is a great choice because it’s not like JMU’s offense needs him, but he’s just so good. If you haven’t watched Rhode Island, you need to, if only to watch Parker cook. He turns the gas alllll the way up.
The CAA has a wealth of talented players, but in accordance with my last answer, I’ll take Towson DB Coby Tippett. I think he’d add another veteran presence on JMU’s back end, and he could give the Dukes another return specialist, too.
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