JMU Doesn’t Have A Four-Man Quarterback Competition

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Curt Cignetti plays his cards close to his chest.

JMU’s head football coach doesn’t like to tip his hand about much, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. Last season, he didn’t name a starting quarterback until the first game day of the season.

It’s Cignetti’s right to keep information hidden from the media. Honestly, it’s probably fun for him to keep his true personnel thoughts hidden! And I’m sure in his mind it’s a competitive advantage to withhold information.

But after seeing The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Breeze, The Daily News-Record, and WHSV all say JMU football has a four-man quarterback competition after Saturday’s spring football game, I’m calling bullshit.

It’s not a four-man battle

Cignetti might say it’s still a four-man competition at the end of the spring, but I’m not buying it. Here’s a quick overview of the four QBs in the running.

Jordan McCloud, R-Sr: McCloud has 23 career starts under his belt between seasons at South Florida and Arizona. He didn’t play in 2022 and played sparingly in 2021 at Arizona due to injuries. In 2019 and 2020, however, he was USF’s best quarterback option. He threw for 400+ yards and four touchdowns in his final game in 2020 against UCF, a program which is moving from the AAC to the Big 12. He played well in 2019 against a ranked Cincinnati program.

Certainly, limited action the last two seasons due to injury can lead to some rust, but McCloud’s game tape jumps out. He’s super athletic and capable of throwing an accurate deep ball. His experience, even if it was a couple years ago, is by far the most among JMU’s quarterbacks.

Alonza Barnett III, R-Fr: This dude can play, and the coaches like him. Cignetti has praised Barnett this spring, and he and McCloud were the two QBs to run with the first team offense during Saturday’s spring game.

Despite talent and good tools, Barnett lacks game reps. He was the third-string quarterback last season before moving into the backup role by the end of the season. Despite progress last year behind the scenes, Barnett has attempted one pass his entire college career. He’s really young, but his upside is tremendous.

Billy Atkins, R-So: Atkins actually started a game last season, but he really struggled against Marshall’s elite defense. Atkins fired five interceptions last season on 43 passes and his completion percentage was below 50%. He’s slightly more experienced than Barnett, but he showcased poor decision making last season when given meaningful playing time. He ran with the second-team offense Saturday.

Brett Griffis, R-Fr: A transfer from Wake Forest, Griffis had a phenomenal high school career. He’s yet to throw a collegiate pass, however, and he worked with the second-team offense on Saturday. He only threw two passes.

We can be honest here. It’s a safe space.

It’s a two-man battle.

Atkins’ struggles last season mean he has a much better chance of earning the backup or QB3 role this season than the starting gig. As for Griffis, his inexperience and lack of time in the spring game indicate he’s viewed as a talented developmental prospect. He’s not the 2023 starter. That seems especially true with Cignetti recently telling the media that first-team reps have shifted toward Barnett and McCloud, and those two ran with the first team Saturday.

I understand why the media is saying it’s a four-man competition (Cignetti won’t officially rule anyone out of it yet), but Cignetti likely isn’t going to come out and name a starter until late August or early September. We know this is how he operates.

It’s simply not a four-man competition. JMU’s starting quarterback (barring injuries or suspensions) will be Jordan McCloud or Alonza Barnett.

It’s closer than last year’s competition

A recent tweet from Shane Mettlen suggests this year’s battle is more of a “legit” competition than last year’s competition between Todd Centeio and Billy Atkins/Barnett.

(It’s an interesting tweet, as the local media didn’t announce a starter until the team did a few hours before kickoff last year. If last year’s battle wasn’t that close, why didn’t reporters come out and say so prior to Week 1? Feels like there’s some revisionist history with how last year’s competition was portrayed in the media.)

I completely agree with Shane’s tweet, though. This competition seems more legit. And honestly, it would be alarming if it wasn’t!

Todd Centeio missed the Marshall game last season, and he was limited by injury against Louisville. In those games, JMU went 0-2 and combined to score 22 points. Billy Atkins went 13-35 with four interceptions and took seven sacks in a 26-12 loss to Marshall.

With Centeio healthy, the Dukes’ offense was dynamic and the program was arguably the best in the Sun Belt. Without him, the offense was a liability.

There was a massive drop off between QB1 and QB2 in 2022. It was a glaring weakness entering the offseason, especially with Centeio leaving. That’s why Cignetti added two QBs in the portal.

This year’s battle being closer means JMU might actually have quality depth at quarterback (particularly QB 2) in 2023. That was a goal entering the offseason, so it’s good to see that Barnett has developed to a point where he’s pushing McCloud. Atkins/Griffis makes for a talented duo that seems to be competing for QB3.

Jordan McCloud is the favorite

I don’t doubt that Alonza Barnett is highly respected by coaches and teammates. I believe he’s capable of winning the starting job. But let’s acknowledge that McCloud is the favorite.

Jordan McCloud has thrown for over 3,000 career yards in college football games. He has more career passing touchdowns (23) than Atkins and Barnett had passing completions (20) last year. He’s experienced (490 career pass attempts). He can run (400+ career rushing yards with dynamic speed). He’s seen defensive concepts. He’s played against good defenses.

All of that matters.

JMU’s schedule also matters, as it opens its season with Bucknell before a brutal stretch. JMU plays at UVA, at Troy, and at Utah State. The Dukes end September with a home game against South Alabama.

Troy and South Alabama are likely SBC West favorites. Those are huge league games.

UVA is an ACC program an hour away from Harrisonburg that avoided playing the Dukes for 40 years. It’s also UVA’s first home game since a tragic shooting left three members of its team dead. That game will be highly emotional and meaningful for the Charlottesville community. Expect plenty of fans from both teams in attendance for what will be an engaging atmosphere. Utah State is a solid MWC program, and that’s not an easy road trip out West.

JMU eased into last season with a pair of easy SBC West foes in October and some winnable September games (home against Middle Tennessee and Norfolk State, plus a bye week before going to App State). This September, JMU faces a four-game gauntlet.

Not only does Alonza Barnett have to outplay Jordan McCloud, he has to prove to Curt Cignetti that he’s a better option than the veteran QB to lead JMU into three consecutive hostile environments in September. A slow start could doom JMU’s chances of winning the SBC East. Barnett can’t just match up with McCloud during scrimmages, he has to prove he’s ready for the big stage.

For a redshirt freshman to earn that confidence over a redshirt senior with meaningful Group of Five experience, it will take a special fall camp. If that happens, Barnett has a chance to either become one of the best QBs in program history (starting at the FBS level as a redshirt freshman!!) or move to a major Power Five program via the transfer portal in the near future. If Barnett wins the starting job in 2023, he’s going to become an Antwane Wells Jr. type star.

If Barnett has what it takes to become the starter this early in his career, it means he’s special.

Cignetti is a QB guru

Curt Cignetti played quarterback at West Virginia in the early 1980s. He graduated and quickly got into coaching. Starting in 1985, Cignetti coached quarterbacks until 2006, working his way up the coaching ranks. Then he went to Alabama and coached wide receivers. A few years later, he became a head coach.

Cignetti has worked with quarterbacks/receivers/offenses, etc. for nearly 40 consecutive years. He knows what he’s doing.

In Ben DiNucci’s first year at JMU, he struggled with consistency under Mike Houston. DiNucci had 16 TD passes and 12 INTs. The next season he tossed 29 TDs and only six INTs with Cignetti as his coach.

Cole Johnson threw 41 TDs to just four INTs in his final season, and that’s after he was nearly benched for Gage Maloney the prior season. I bet Cignetti could’ve won with Maloney, too, as Maloney did lead a 2020 comeback against Elon. COVID-19 (not performance) benched Maloney in 2020, who likely would’ve been the starter the rest of that season. Instead, Johnson caught fire under Cignetti’s watch.

Todd Centeio threw 15 TDs and 10 INTs in his final season at Colorado State before throwing 25 TDs to five INTs last year with the Dukes.

When it comes to JMU’s quarterback battle, the winner will be poised for success. Cignetti knows knows how to develop quarterbacks.

JMU’s starting quarterback will start behind a veteran offensive line, and he’ll have a loaded group of running backs and some talented wide receivers, including Reggie Brown. The defense was among the best in the Sun Belt in 2022, and the unit returns significant talent, especially along the defensive line and at linebacker.

The Dukes have the pieces to win 10+ games in 2023, and the quarterback enters an ideal situation. JMU can probably win 8+ games with either McCloud or Barnett. Cignetti needs to decide which player gives JMU the highest ceiling in 2023.

Based on past history, I expect JMU’s quarterback to play well in 2023. I also expect Cignetti to avoid telling media and fans the whole truth about the competition, at least until late in the summer. But we don’t have to play those games.

So can we all agree to stop calling it a four-man competition?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *