Takeaways from JMU’s Appearance at Sun Belt Media Day

By Bennett Conlin

Thankfully, it’s almost time for fall camp. Before fall camp, however, JMU sent Curt Cignetti, OL Nick Kidwell, and DL James Carpenter to Sun Belt Media Days.

Media days help generate interest for the fall season, and it also leads to an incredible amount of coach speak (this week I learned that every SBC team shares a “1-0 mentality” and likes their roster), generic answers, and some dull questions.

As mind-numbing as media days can be, even the generic comments provide a valuable public speaking opportunity for the players. You can tell some of the player representatives are a bit uncomfortable on the stage, but it’s a fantastic learning experience for college students to speak in front of a large room of listeners.

Mixed into the nonsense and learning experience for the athletes, there’s also usually a few tidbits of valuable information. We tried to parse through the generic comments for a couple insights into JMU’s 2023 season.

Two-man QB battle

Thank goodness! Curt Cignetti put an end to the four-man quarterback battle narrative that existed in the spring, saying Wednesday it doesn’t make sense to give four QBs significant reps during fall camp.

Like we’ve known for a while, it’ll be Jordan McCloud vs. Alonza Barnett for the starting job.

“I don’t think you can rep four guys in fall camp … I think going in it’ll be McCloud and Barnett, and then if someone really catches our eye, his reps will increase,” Cignetti said.

McCloud comes to JMU after time at USF and Arizona. He’s by far the most experienced of the group, and he’s a dynamic runner. He hasn’t played much over the last couple seasons, though, so knocking off playing rust will be important as he tries to earn the starting job.

“It sure would be nice to have some experience at quarterback going on the road Week 2, 3, and 4, but whoever plays the best in camp will be the starter,” Cignetti said.

That seems telling! We might not know the starter until Sept. 2, but given McCloud’s playing experience he’s the on-paper favorite entering fall camp. We’ve been saying that since the spring.

Barnett, a redshirt freshman, is a talented player with loads of potential. Can he prove that he’s a better option than McCloud in 2023 or will he serve as JMU’s backup for another season or two before possibly moving into a starting role? Regardless, Cignetti likes Barnett enough for fans to feel confident the Dukes’ quarterback depth is improved in 2023.

Under-the-radar offensive players

You don’t want to read too much into every comment during media days, but when players or coaches mention guys that haven’t found their way into recent media headlines, it’s worth taking note.

Cignetti mentioned Solomon Vanhorse at running back Wednesday without prompting, making him a name to note. He’s a dynamic speedster with good hands. JMU has relative unknowns at wide receiver, but could Vanhorse catch 1-3 passes per game to provide a boost in the passing game? He’s not big enough to receive 15-20+ touches per game, but his athleticism makes him dangerous with limited touches.

“He’s really been a weapon for us, too, and was injured last season,” Cignetti said.

Cignetti also mentioned ECU transfer Taji Hudson being “impressive” this summer at wide receiver, and he’s a name to watch along with fellow ECU transfer Troy Lewis. Hudson went to ECU after a nice high school career as a quarterback. ECU moved him to wide receiver, where Hudson came on strong at the end of last season and caught his one career pass in a bowl win over Coastal Carolina.

Hudson’s size, he’s 6’3″ and 200 lbs, makes him an intriguing player. He’s a physical blocker with plenty of athleticism that should translate well to wide receiver. Just a redshirt sophomore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hudson become a consistent contributor for JMU on offense and special teams in the next few seasons.

Defensive line will be just fine

Carpenter mentioned fellow DL Mikail Kamara and Jalen Green when asked about players he’s most excited to watch defensively. Both players could finish the season by earning All-Sun Belt honors.

Kamara has been a beast for the Dukes when healthy (9.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 11 games played), and Carpenter called him one of the hardest working players he knows. In my estimation, if Kamara stays healthy for 12 games, he’ll be viewed as one of the Sun Belt’s best defenders come November.

Green seems due for a breakout season after a nice 2022 (career-high six tackles for loss) and a productive spring. Both Green and Kamara look the part of Power Five defensive ends and were top of mind for Carpenter on Wednesday.

Those two players will work well with guys like Carpenter on the inside, and the Dukes still have Abi Nwabuoku-Okonji and Jamree Kromah. Both of the former Power Five players can play inside or outside, giving defensive coordinator Bryant Haines flexibility along the defensive front.

Isaac Ukwu’s transfer departure was a tough offseason loss, but the Dukes have plenty of firepower along the defensive line.

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