JMU Football Revamps Running Back Room, Poised for Strong 2024

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

2024 will mark running back Tyler Purdy’s sixth college football season. It’ll also mark his fifth year living with linebacker Jacob Dobbs. 

The two Holy Cross transfers are joining JMU for the 2024 season, and they’re rooming together again after four years living together at Holy Cross. They’ll be joined by offensive lineman Patrick McMurtrie, who also lived with Dobbs and Purdy the last two seasons. The trio plan to finish their college careers in Harrisonburg, living together for one final year and playing for head coach Bob Chesney. 

“It takes special people that you can get along with and be around like 18 hours a day,” Purdy told JMU Sports News. “Those guys being such great dudes, I’m grateful to be around them a lot.”

Close friendships with Dobbs and McMurtrie helped push Purdy toward JMU, as did his connection with members of JMU’s new coaching staff. After a foot injury derailed Purdy’s 2022 season, he played his best football in 2023 under first-year offensive coordinator Dean Kennedy. 

Purdy carried the ball 59 times for 435 yards and three touchdowns, averaging a career-best 7.4 yards per carry. He went over 100 total yards twice in 2023, despite only having one game with at least 10 touches. Purdy wasn’t the team’s focal point in the rushing game, but he was an explosive complement to quarterback Matthew Sluka and running back Jordan Fuller. 

Those two handled the bulk of the rushing load, while Purdy served as a dynamic RB2. Purdy also shined as a receiving option, catching eight more passes and posting 125 more receiving yards than any other Holy Cross running back in 2023. Purdy was Holy Cross’ third-leading receiver in terms of receptions (14) and yards (166) in 2023.

“Coach Kennedy as offensive coordinator did a great job utilizing my skillset within the offense and getting me plays that utilize my speed and the way I can catch the ball out of the backfield,” Purdy said. 

Kennedy comes to JMU with an understanding of the strengths of Purdy’s game, which allowed helped the running back thrive in 2023.

JMU’s new-look running back room

Kennedy will have access to a revamped JMU running back room going into the 2024 season. Kaelon Black and Ty Son Lawton both transferred to Indiana, and Latrele Palmer graduated. 

While the Dukes lost key players, their running game was a disappointment in 2023. The trio averaged just 4.4 yards per carry and scored only seven rushing touchdowns. 

The trio has been replaced by Purdy, North Texas’ Ayo Adeyi, and North Carolina’s George Pettaway. Adeyi headlines the group, having exceeded 1,000 yards in 2023 for the Mean Green. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns, which would’ve led JMU rushers in 2023. 

Pettaway was seldom used for North Carolina in 2022 and 2023, but he was highly recruited out of high school and has game-breaking potential given his athleticism. He’s expected to contribute immediately for the Dukes and should find it easier to see the field at JMU than North Carolina.

“They both look like studs,” Purdy said. 

While Purdy never received more than 79 carries in a season at Holy Cross, he’s a good blocker, quick runner, and adept receiver. He’s likely to have a role for the Dukes in 2024, as JMU may opt for a running back by committee approach. 

Adeyi’s North Texas stats jump off the page, but he never carried the ball 20 times or more in a game during his three seasons with North Texas. The veteran running back is likely JMU’s RB1, but it’s not safe to assume he’ll become a workhorse back earning 25-30 carries per game with the Dukes.

Expect Pettaway and Purdy, and perhaps some others in the room, to earn carries and receive reps. JMU returns Sammy Malignaggi and Ke’Marion Baldwin at the position, among others. 

Purdy wants to help set the culture of the running back room, a position group he says was selfless at Holy Cross in recent years, which sparked success. The Crusaders led the Patriot League in rushing every season from 2020-23.  

“We’re trying to win games here,” Purdy said. “No matter what that looks like in the rotation, that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Editor’s note: Thanks to Three Notch’d Brewing for their advertising support this season. 

Special teams contributors?

JMU’s running back room may also play an important role in the return game in 2024. Pettaway returned nine kicks during his North Carolina career and averaged nearly 30 yards per return. He’s a natural fit at the position and could pair with returning safety DJ Barksdale as kick returners. 

Purdy also has some experience returning kickoffs, having returned four for 87 yards in 2023. He’s returned 19 kicks over the course of his collegiate career, giving JMU another potential option in the return game. 

Special teams coach Drew Canan comes to JMU from Holy Cross, where the Crusaders had one of the best special teams units at the FCS level. Purdy says he has a strong connection with Canan, who works well with Chesney to inspire players to commit to special teams production. 

“If you’re a starter and you’re asked to play special teams, there’s no turning that down,” Purdy said.

Given the previous rushing production and the possible special teams boost from the position, the Dukes may have a much more effective running back room in 2024 than 2023.

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