Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
It’s almost here. After over a year without JMU football, we’ll see the Dukes on the field … *crosses fingers and knocks on wood* Saturday when they host Morehead State.
Curt Cignetti embarks on season No. 2 as JMU’s head coach. He’ll do so after leading the team to the FCS title game in 2019-20. While the team ultimately fell short against North Dakota State, it was a great start to the Cignetti era.
JMU’s 2021 spring season features plenty of intriguing storylines. The Dukes trot out a new starting QB this weekend, with Cole Johnson expected to finally be QB1. The veteran signal caller will lean on an elite offensive line and running game as he aims to lead the Dukes to a CAA title amid a pandemic.
Ah yes, the pandemic. Perhaps the most important storyline this fall. Will the Dukes play all eight of their scheduled games? Will the FCS playoffs happen given the state of the pandemic?
COVID-19 figures to play a critical role in the spring season, and plenty of teams opted out of playing this spring. Towson’s departure changed how the entire CAA will function this spring, and the Dukes will play three CAA teams twice for its unusual conference schedule.
It’s an odd season, but as of mid-February it’s still a season. If the FBS season showed us anything, it’s that once the games start, fans, coaches, players and media members still care a whole heckuva lot about the results on the field.
The (tentative) schedule
Let’s start with the basics. JMU is scheduled to play eight games this spring, with six CAA games and nonconference matchups. The playoff field is reduced to 16 teams this spring, making the CAA automatic berth even more valuable.
JMU opens the season Saturday against Morehead State. The Dukes host Robert Morris the following weekend. Both nonconference matchups set up to be blowouts, as the Dukes are the far superior team in each contest.
While the disparity is smaller for the six CAA games, there’s still a major gap between Elon, Richmond, W&M and JMU. The Dukes should be favored in all six conference games, setting up a great opportunity to go 8-0.
This year’s schedule is weak. Unfortunately, there’s not much JMU can do about that. The team needs nonconference games, and it scheduled a pair of out-of-conference squads that it’s faced in recent seasons. The CAA schedule was dictated by the league, with a focus on georgraphic proximity.
JMU avoids teams in the CAA’s “North” Division this spring. That makes for an easy schedule, as foes like Villanova, Albany and Delaware will play in the opposite division. JMU’s schedule makes it a heavy CAA favorite, although playing the same team twice will make for some game plan challenges.
The major concern with JMU’s schedule is its overall weakness.
If JMU drops two games, would the Dukes be a lock to make the postseason? I’m not sold.
Given the weakness of the team’s schedule, the Dukes will rely on wins and style points this spring when it comes to postseason seeding.
What should fans know about the Dukes?
If you’re a JMU football fan startled by the rapid arrival of a spring football season, you’re not alone. Tracking football news during an offseason without sports is much easier than tracking football news in the middle of college basketball season.
For those who haven’t paid close attention to the news, we’ll hit some highlights.
Cole Johnson’s time
After years of waiting his turn to be JMU’s starting quarterback, the “Baby Giraffe” is going to be the Dukes’ starter.
Johnson is an athletic quarterback with a strong arm. He’s not quite Ben DiNucci, Bryan Schor or Vad Lee, but he’s not a statue either. He can move and is a threat to pick up yards on scrambles or in the read-option game. His strength, however, is his arm.
Experience is also a plus for Johnson. While he’s never been the team’s unquestioned starter, he’s been around the block. Johnson has appeared in 22 games in his career, firing 134 passes. He’s completed 86 of those for 1,099 yards and six touchdowns. He also has six interceptions.
Johnson has been in the program since 2016, and he’s played in games. He’s someone who knows what it takes to be a college football player, even if he’s only started one game in his career.
Gage Moloney, a left-handed quarterback and powerful runner, will back up Johnson.
Transfers still help
JMU has embraced transfers in recent seasons. From Brandon Polk to Ben DiNucci to Ron’Dell Carter, transfers played important roles in JMU’s recent title runs. Expect transfers to contribute once again.
Scott Bracey, a Duke transfer, is expected to be in the mix at wide receiver. He’s listed on the offensive two-deep as a starter.
Kris Thornton, another potential WR starter, is a VMI transfer. Jawon Hamilton is a UCF transfer at running back who has been a great addition for the Dukes, and Stanley Hubbard is a UConn transfer along the offensive line. Noah Turner, a UNC transfer, may contribute alongside Drew Painter and Clayton Cheatham.
Defensively, transfers may serve a massive role.
The secondary will rely a bit on FBS transfers. Wayne Davis has been a key contributor for JMU in the past, and the Ohio State transfer is slated to start at safety. He’ll be joined in the defensive backfield by UNC transfer Greg Ross.
Along the defensive line, Mason Chowela is a beast of a man. The UCF transfer should earn snaps at defensive tackle. Along the edge, Temple transfer Antonio Colclough is a promising prospect. Minnesota transfer Abi Nwabuoku-Okonji is another option at defensive end.
Bridgewater transfer Connor Madden is the team’s kickoff specialist.
Plenty of stars were recruited by JMU and initially committed to the Dukes. Transfers, however, will play an important role in JMU’s success again this season.
High expectations due to ground game
JMU’s standard is competing for national championships. That’s still the goal and standard this season. The Dukes return a talented roster, albeit with some questions, but the team possesses plenty of ability and experience.
The main reason the Dukes are considered a title threat this season, in addition to a culture of winning, is the team’s running game. Latrele Palmer averaged nearly seven yards per carry as a freshman, and he’s listed as the fourth running back on the depth chart.
Percy Agyei-Obese returns after scoring 19 rushing touchdowns in 2019-20. He eclipsed 1,200 yards on the ground. Jawon Hamilton is elusive as they come and figures to form a 1-2 punch with Agyei-Obese. Look for Solomon Vanhorse to be involved in the passing game.
The offensive line also returns significant experience, with Liam Fornadel leading the way. He’s one of the team’s top NFL Draft prospects. Four of the team’s five starting offensive linemen are redshirt seniors.
Expect lots of running from the Dukes this season.
What should fans expect?
Expected a disjointed spring.
Teams already opted out of the season. Would others do the same if they start the year with a losing record and then face significant COVID-19 issues within their teams? Almost certainly.
It’s going to be a hectic season, largely due to the virus. When JMU is able to take the field, it’s against relatively weak competition. The Dukes play eight games against just five teams.
It’s an unusual season, but it seems like it’s going to happen.
Fans should expect FCS football. After the fall, that’s a pleasant outcome, even if it’s disjointed. We’re hopeful the Dukes can play really well and give us something fun to enjoy over the spring. We’re more hopeful the Dukes can safely play games, while giving the players and coaches something to enjoy in what’s been a challenging and frustrating year.