Depth a Strength for JMU Football’s 2024 Defensive Line

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

When Curt Cignetti took the Indiana job, it was expected he’d take several JMU Dukes with him to Bloomington. That expectation came true, with the defensive line arguably the hardest hit position group.

James Carpenter, Mikail Kamara, and Tyrique Tucker are all Hoosiers. Coupled with the graduations of Jamree Kromah and Jalen Green, the Dukes lost the main contributors of arguably the best defensive line in program history — JMU’s 3.46 sacks per game ranked third nationally last fall.

Fortunately for Bob Chesney and JMU, a massive transfer portal haul of their own could keep JMU’s defensive front among the best in the Group of Five in 2024. Let’s break down the new-look defensive line as it stands in mid-June.

Defensive ends/edge rushers

The defensive end position benefited dramatically in the transfer portal. An inexperienced returning group – outside of Abi Nwabuoku-Okonji – needed some veteran help.

Eric O’Neill, a transfer from Long Island, comes to JMU after recording 44.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in two FCS seasons. That includes an absurd 13-tackle performance against Ohio in 2023, the team’s lone game against an FBS team. O’Neill added 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and an interception in the loss to one of the MAC’s best teams.

O’Neill’s production suggests he could find himself on a Power Five roster in 2025. Expect him to start (and produce at or near an All-Sun Belt level) for the Dukes in 2024.

Along the edge, JMU also added Lloyd Summerall and Khairi Manns. While Manns (formerly of Maine and Colorado) is listed as a linebacker, he’s essentially an edge rusher at OLB. With Maine, Manns recorded 108 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 26 career games. He didn’t post eye-popping numbers for Colorado, but he’s explosive and will help the pass rush.

Summerall, who began his career at Florida before joining USF, also thrives off the edge. He tallied 21 tackles and four tackles for loss in eight games for USF last fall. Summerall and Manns should fill similar roles at edge.

Amar Thomas and Zai Roberts add valuable depth at the position and should compete for playing time. They’re both bigger than Summerall and Manns, although less explosive off the edge.

Interior linemen

Syracuse transfer Terry Lockett is a critical portal addition, with him playing a meaningful role along Syracuse’s defensive line last fall. He earned snaps for a decent ACC team – recording 26 tackles in 11 games last season, including three tackles for loss. He should slot into JMU’s rotation immediately.

Youngstown State transfer Chris Fitzgerald, a spring portal addition, theoretically replaces Tucker. Fitzgerald recorded 65 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons at the FCS level, and he’s explosive enough to earn a starting gig with a good fall camp. At the very least, he’ll work into JMU’s rotation.

Returner Immanuel Bush put together a strong spring camp, and he’s a likely starter given his elite size (nearly 300 lbs). He anchors the middle of a line, and he’s recorded 7.5 tackles for loss over his last two seasons (one at Marshall and one at JMU).

Youngsters Darold DeNgohe and Mychal McMullin each have high upside, and they could work into the rotation if they earn enough trust to warrant game reps.

Projected starters

Let’s assume JMU runs a defensive scheme with four linemen. Here’s a stab at a projected starting unit:

DE – Eric O’Neill
DT – Terry Lockett
DT – Immanuel Bush
DE – Abi Nwabuoku-Okonji

Nwabuoku-Okonji is coming off a season-ending injury, but when healthy, he’s a big defensive end with proven ability as a run defender and pass rusher. He earned his way into JMU’s rotation last season before the injury, speaking to how Cignetti and company viewed him. If he was good enough to play on that line, he’s good enough to play on the 2024 defensive line.

O’Neill is my favorite lineman on the team, so he’s a starter in my book. Lockett and Bush are productive players with meaningful experience. They’re easy locks to make the rotation.

Here’s another grouping that could be lethal on clear passing downs:

DE – Khairi Manns
DT – Chris Fitzgerald
DT – Eric O’Neill
DE – Lloyd Summerall

A NASCAR-style package, this group would be exceptionally explosive. O’Neill can handle himself inside, while Manns and Summerall are dynamite edge rushers. Fitzgerald shows good burst for an interior pass rusher, too.

The Dukes might not have the same top-end talent as last year’s defensive line (three of the linemen are on a Big Ten roster now, with Kromah and Green chasing NFL opportunities), but they have more depth along the line. That allows for creative groupings of three or four linemen.

Notable depth

As for the rest of the line, I believe these seven guys hold the best chance to earn reps at the position outside of my projected starting unit.

DE – Lloyd Summerall, Khairi Manns, Amar Thomas, Zai Roberts
DT – Chris Fitzgerald, Darold DeNoghe, Mychal McMullin

Summerall and Manns should see the field as rotational edge pieces. Fitzgerald figures to play in some capacity, given his experience at tackle. Thomas, Roberts, DeNgohe and McMullin are bigger question marks in my mind, but all four players figure to be in the rotation or on the fringe of the rotation. Those names could be meaningful, especially if any of the starters suffer injuries.

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