JMU Football 2023 Preview: The Defense

Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support this JMU sports season.

By Bennett Conlin

JMU’s defense was superb at times in 2022.

The Dukes finished third in the Sun Belt in points allowed per game (20.9), trailing only elite defenses Marshall (16) and Troy (17.1). They led the Sun Belt in sacks per game, generating 3.45 per game. That mark ranked fourth nationally.

JMU averaged 8.6 tackles for loss per game, the second-best mark nationally. Only Liberty created more tackles for loss per game.

Only Georgia (77.1) allowed fewer rushing yards per game than Curt Cignetti’s team (79.5). JMU also ranked sixth nationally in third-down conversion percentage allowed.

That’s really good!

But, there was also some bad.

Georgia Southern’s pass-heavy scheme tore JMU’s secondary apart, as Kyle Vantrease threw for 578 yards and four touchdowns. This was an alarmingly rough showing form the Dukes.

Louisville rushed for 244 yards (averaging 5.4 yards per carry) against JMU’s vaunted defensive front, wearing the Dukes down in the second half. Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham averaged more than 10 yards per pass attempt in the game, a 34-10 Louisville win.

There’s room to improve for the Dukes on defense, although the unit would likely sign up for a repeat of 2022 in 2023.

Defensive line

JMU loses big-time performers in Isaac Ukwu and Jamare Edwards, who combined for 23 tackles for loss and 14 sacks a season ago. Fortunately for the Dukes, plenty of key players return.

Defensive tackle James Carpenter (R-JR) is arguably the most consistent player on the team, recording 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season.

“If you had to rate our team 1-50, probably a 90% chance he’s No. 1,” Cignetti said at Sun Belt Media Day.

Marshall transfer Immanuel Bush (R-SO) figures to slide in alongside Carpenter in the middle of the defensive line. Depth behind those two is questionable.

On the edge, JMU is stacked.

Jamree Kromah (R-SR) posted 5.5 tackles for loss last season. He’s added size — he’s up from about 260 lbs to 275 lbs — and can play defensive end or tackle. If Bush or Carpenter get banged up, Kromah could slide into the defensive tackle spot. If they’re healthy, I like Kromah’s size on the edge, but understand the potential need to play him inside. Abi Nwabuoko-Okonji (R-SR) possesses a similar build, and he’s expected to help along the defensive line.

Keep a close eye on Mikail Kamara (R-SO) and Jalen Green (SR). The two edge players have a chance to become All-Sun Belt players in 2023. Green’s pass-rushing ability makes him a top candidate to lead JMU in sacks, while Kamara’s size and skill make him a Power Five player on a Group of Five roster.

Kamara recorded four sacks in five games played last year. If healthy, he’s going to push for 10 sacks.

Zai Roberts (R-SO) and Sean Johns (R-JR) add veteran depth along the line. Redshirt freshmen Amar Thomas, Ike Thompson, and Tyrique Tucker are young names to monitor.

Linebackers

This breakdown feels simple.

Jailin Walker (JR) and Taurus Jones (R-JR) combined for 144 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries in 2022. The duo deserves to start at linebacker this fall in the team’s 4-2-5 scheme.

Backups Aiden Fisher (SO) and Trent Hendrick (SO) are really, really good. Both players should see the field at times, and they’re capable of huge seasons if either Walker or Jones goes down with injury.

Julio Ayamel (R-JR) and Seth Naotala (R-SO) should contribute on special teams.

Cornerbacks

Like Kamara, sophomore Chauncey Logan gives off “Power Five teams should’ve recruited me much, much harder” vibes. He’s JMU’s CB1, given his athleticism and size. He’s capable of becoming a lock-down corner at the Sun Belt level this fall.

Brent Austin (SO) gives JMU another fantastic young corner. Austin dealt with injuries last year and in the spring, but his game translates well when healthy.

Devyn Coles (SR) reminds me of Jimmy Moreland. He competes at a high level, despite not being all that big. He’ll give up some plays, but the Norfolk State transfer can force turnovers.

Outside of those three, it’ll be a competition for more playing time. Indiana transfer Trevell Mullen (R-FR) figures to be in the mix for time. True freshman D’Angelo Ponds excites coaches, and he’s worth keeping a close eye on early this fall. Ponds might push for playing time.

Other players, like Power Five transfers Antoine Booth (R-SO) and Nehki Meredith (R-SO), may factor into the team’s two-deep.

Safeties

Francis Meehan (R-SR), Que Reid (R-SR), Chris Chukwuneke (R-SR), Josh Sarratt (SR), and Jarius Reimoneq (SR) give JMU experienced depth. All five of those players are worthy of playing time, but not everyone can start. Safety should have competition throughout camp.

The Dukes could use a few more game-changing plays from the safety spot. Generating turnovers would be a boost.

Kye Holmes (R-SO) and Jacob Thomas (SO) are younger names to monitor.

The bottom line

The biggest questions facing JMU’s defense come at defensive tackle (depth) and the secondary (depth and consistency).

I expect the defensive line to create significant pressure and stop the run effectively. What happens, though, if Bush or Carpenter get hurt?

JMU couldn’t dream up a better situation at linebacker. In the secondary, there’s talent at corner. Is there enough depth? At safety, are the veteran returners ready to create turnovers and limit chunk passing plays?

At the very least, JMU should be a top-7 Sun Belt defense. At best, this could be the Sun Belt’s top scoring defense.

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