Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU’s last three starting quarterbacks have been Vad Lee, Bryan Schor and Ben DiNucci.
Lee helped revitalize JMU’s program, spearheading the effort to get ESPN’s “College GameDay” to town.
Schor become the most decorated passer in program history. He also led the Dukes to the 2016 national title and helped the team make it back to Frisco in the 2017 season, where the Dukes fell short.
DiNucci played well at times in 2018 before a monstrous 2019 campaign saw him earn CAA Offensive Player of the Year honors. He led JMU to Frisco and was drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The next JMU quarterback has big shoes to fill.
Barring the addition of a late transfer, the competition seems destined to be a two-man race between redshirt senior Cole Johnson and redshirt junior Gage Moloney.
Freshman Kyle Adams seems like a promising young prospect, but he’s listed at 6’1″ and 175 pounds on JMU’s website. It makes significantly more sense for the Dukes to redshirt Adams or at least keep him on the sideline and allow him to fill into his frame while adjusting to the collegiate game than it does to give him the keys to a national title contender.
Johnson and Moloney have plenty of experience and talent. They’re different players with different strengths, but both could excel behind an experienced offensive line. With a surplus or running back talent and a solid defense returning, the starting quarterback won’t need to be a hero for the Dukes to win most weeks.
Starting quarterback play won’t make or break JMU’s chances of being competitive, but DiNucci illustrated the difference quality quarterback play makes. In 2018, DiNucci’s turnovers sent the Dukes packing in the second round of the playoffs. In 2019, DiNucci’s stellar play took the Dukes to the national championship game.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2020 quarterback competition with the season (hopefully) just a few months away.
Cole Johnson, redshirt senior
If it feels like Cole Johnson has been around forever, it’s because he has. Johnson served as a backup for Bryan Schor’s — and actually started the season finale — when JMU won the national championship in 2016.
Due to the recent redshirt changes, Johnson has played in at least four games in each of his four seasons in Harrisonburg. He redshirted in 2018 after DiNucci won the starting job.
He’s an experienced quarterback who spent three seasons under Houston and the last year under Cignetti. Much like Moloney, Johnson knows the current offensive system.
Size and arm strength are both strengths for Johnson. At 6-feet-5-inches tall, Johnson looks like a pro quarterback. He has a strong right arm, and he’s accurate with the football.
Even in 2016, Johnson flashed good deep ball accuracy. In his one start as a freshman, Johnson threw for 274 yards on 12-13 passing. He tossed a pair of touchdowns. He looked the part of a future starter.
He’s shown varying levels of consistency since then, but looked good last season in limited action. He completed 14 of his 20 passes for 118 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
He also ran for 37 yards and a touchdown on five carries. While he’s not DiNucci as a runner, he’s better than people give him credit for as a ball carrier. He’s athletic with long strides.
Given his solid mobility and arm strength, Johnson would fit very well in Cignetti’s offense. Play action would become a major weapon, as the defense would need to play close to the line of scrimmage to stop the Dukes’ powerful rushing attack. When that happens, Johnson can throw the ball over the top to players like Jake Brown and Kyndel Dean.
Johnson seems like the best option for the Dukes to be balanced offensively. He’s the best pure passer on the roster.
Johnson isn’t the most mobile quarterback, and he would likely be the least athletic JMU quarterback in a few seasons. That’s not to say he isn’t athletic, but Johnson wouldn’t provide the same level of scrambling ability as Lee, Schor or DiNucci.
The other potential concern with Johnson is consistent decision making. He threw three interceptions against New Hampshire in 2018 when the Dukes benched DiNucci after two quick turnovers. Johnson did throw for 398 yards in that game, though.
He has six touchdowns and six interceptions in his JMU career.
There’s no debating that Johnson could win games as JMU’s quarterback.
The big question is whether or not he’s ready to take a step forward as a starter after spending four seasons as a capable backup. Consistent decision making will need to improve for Johnson to win the job, considering Moloney offers more in the running game.
Gage Moloney, redshirt junior
Moloney was South Carolina’s 2016 Mr. Football. The 6-foot-2-inch left-handed quarterback will draw plenty of comparisons to Tim Tebow by fans. There’s some truth to that as Moloney features a strong arm and is a downhill rushing presence like the former Florida quarterback.
The Dukes liked Moloney so much as a runner that they used him in the national championship during crunch time.
Cignetti and company implemented a rushing package with Moloney that they used in the fourth quarter of the national championship. They took DiNucci off the field to give Moloney a drive.
Clearly the coaching staff likes what he can do on the ground.
Moloney is a big, physical runner. It’s easy to imagine how he fits in with JMU’s run-first mentality.
Imagine a backfield with Moloney and sophomore Latrele Palmer — we saw it in the national title game — going against FCS defenses. That power duo would pair well with a backfield of Moloney and a speedier running back like Percy Agyei-Obese or Jawon Hamilton.
Really any backfield with Moloney makes for a dangerous rushing attack.
Moloney can still throw the ball, but he’s less experienced at the collegiate level compared to Johnson. Moloney has tossed eight career passes, while Johnson has thrown the ball 134 times in four seasons as a Duke.
Still, Moloney’s arm is strong. Starting Moloney doesn’t mean a passing attack would be nonexistent.
JMU should be one of the better rushing teams in the country in 2020. The running back group is stacked and the offensive line returns a handful of key contributors with All-CAA potential.
With a solid rushing attack, will the Dukes want a quarterback who’s biggest strength is arguably his rushing ability?
DiNucci’s passing ensured the Dukes could use play action effectively to prevent teams from crowding the line of scrimmage.
There were games when the Dukes fired the ball across the field, allowing the passing game to open up room for the rushing attack. The two worked in unison and JMU found tremendous balance as it became one of the best offenses in the FCS in 2019.
Having only thrown eight collegiate passes is Moloney’s biggest weakness.
Lee transferred to JMU from Georgia Tech with solid experience — albeit in a triple-option attack. Schor started in 2015 when Lee went down — so he entered 2016 with starting experience. DiNucci came to JMU in 2018 with starting experience at Pitt. While Johnson only started one game and it was in 2016, he’s played more college football than Moloney.
Moloney is a very good prospect, but there’s a chance he accepts the No. 2 role in 2020 while gaining more experience during blowouts and through a special running package like the one used in the FCS national title before becoming the unquestioned starter in 2021.
Who wins the job?
It’s a cop out, but your guess is as good as mine, especially without the Dukes taking the field recently.
Johnson’s passing makes him a great option, but starting Moloney means two years with the same starting quarterback and a powerful rushing option at quarterback. If the battle is extremely close, giving it to the player with two years of eligibility instead of one might be the best long-term strategy.
Johnson likely gives the Dukes more balance, while with Moloney the Dukes become an early favorite to lead the nation in rushing. On the other hand, the running backs themselves might lead the nation in rushing, even with a pass-first quarterback like Johnson taking the snaps.
If I had to guess, I’d say Johnson’s experience and passing ability — especially with COVID-19 potentially altering summer practice and already canceling spring practice — gives him the edge. When in doubt, lean toward the player with the most collegiate experience, especially when your first game comes against a CAA foe.
Regardless of who wins the job, the Dukes have two quality options at the most important position on the field. That’s good news.