Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Coming into the season, Brandon Polk was a mystery.
Watching Polk highlights made it obvious the Penn State transfer could run, but he was never a focal point of the Penn State offense.
Could he come to Harrisonburg and team up with Riley Stapleton to become one of the better receiving duos in the FCS? The potential was there.
Through eight games, Polk has delivered on that potential. The redshirt senior has at least four receptions for 44 yards in seven of the team’s eight games this season. Over the past six games, Polk has found the end zone five times.
Not only does Polk lead the team with 36 receptions, he also leads the team in yards per reception at 15.53 yards per reception. He’s an electric downfield threat with good hands.
Polk has been so exceptional that he’s on pace to become the first JMU receiver to surpass 800 receiving yards since Earnest Payton in 1998. If JMU plays deep into the postseason, he could become only the second JMU receiver (David McLeod) in history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in a season. That’s something Gary Clark never did.
Part of what makes Polk an elite receiver is his ability in the red zone. Everyone assumes Riley Stapleton will receive the majority of red-zone work because of his body size, but Polk’s speed makes him nearly as dynamic as Stapleton near the goal line.
JMU quarterback Ben DiNucci deserves praise for his efficiency this season, but having Polk and Stapleton on the outside makes DiNucci’s life much easier both in the red zone and across the entire field. If he delivers accurate passes, his receivers will make enough plays to gain consistent positive yardage.
The success of the receivers has the Dukes’ passing attack looking like it did in 2016.
In 2016, JMU threw for 34 total touchdowns, or 2.3 per game. In 2017, the Dukes tossed 27 touchdowns, or 1.8 per game. In 2018, JMU fired 17 passing touchdowns, or 1.3 per game. Through eight games this season, the Dukes have thrown 16 touchdowns, or 2 per game. In FCS games, they’re averaging 2.3 per game.
JMU won the national championship in 2016 largely due to its passing attack. Key drops and miscues in the passing game prevented the Dukes from beating NDSU to win it all in 2017. Last year, a five-interception game ended the Dukes’ season.
As much as fans like to credit the defense and rushing attack for winning championships, the 2016 team relied on efficient passing, especially down the field, more than people appreciate. This passing attack looks like it’s close to matching the production of the 2016 team.
Brandon Polk deserves credit for his role in JMU’s passing success. The star receiver has as many touchdowns this season as Riley Stapleton, Dylan Stapleton, Clayton Cheatham, Kyndel Dean and Jake Brown combined. That’s not a slight against of those other talented receiving threats. Polk is just performing at a historic level.
Polk is no longer a mystery. The Penn State transfer is working on a season that may go down as one of the best in JMU football history.