State of the Program: JMU football

If someone told JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne when he hired Mike Houston before the 2016 season that the Dukes would be 28-2 with a national title after two seasons with Houston, Bourne would’ve borrowed President Alger’s cowboy hat and had himself the celebration of a lifetime. Houston has taken JMU football to new heights in his two seasons at the helm. He’s been a breath of fresh air in a storied program that needed a spark.

Cowboy

With all that being said, repeated greatness carries with it massive expectations. JMU fans are coming, if they haven’t already, to expect the Dukes to contend with North Dakota State for a national title every season. At times last year, fans voiced concerns about the 14-1 Dukes and their offense, which wasn’t the same juggernaut as it was in 2016. Never mind the fact that the team finished 15th nationally in scoring at 34.4 points per game. JMU Nation has come to expect success at the highest level.

Despite the occasional complaints, JMU’s football program is at the height of its existence heading into its 47th season thanks to Houston. The Dukes’ defense, which was the team’s glaring weakness under Everett Withers, has thrived under Houston and is one of the nation’s most fearsome units. Offensively, JMU continues to produce and the special teams unit proves dynamic on a weekly basis.

There aren’t any clear holes in JMU’s 2018 team, but the biggest question mark heading into the fall is the team’s passing game following the graduation of quarterback Bryan Schor, wide receivers John Miller, Jonathan Kloosterman, Ishmael Hyman, Terrence Alls and standout offensive linemen like Aaron Stinnie.

Biggest on-field question

Replacing one of the most decorated passers in school history is the task staring offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick in the face. Schor provided the Dukes with an accurate arm and playmaking ability with his legs that was critical to the team’s 2016 defeat of NDSU that led to JMU’s eventual national title victory over Youngstown State.

Now, the Dukes will turn to either Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci or Cole Johnson, who’s been sitting behind Schor the past two seasons. DiNucci provided a spark with his legs during the spring game, but the QB battle is long from over.

The question with the passing game just doesn’t rest on the arm of the quarterback. JMU also lost tremendous talent at WR and TE. Wide receiver Riley Stapleton is expected to pair with David Eldridge to provide solid options at WR. Clayton Cheatham, Nick Carlton and Mack Cullen give the Dukes a surplus of talent at TE, but it’s relatively unproven. Cheatham had an impressive 2017 campaign, but only totaled eight catches (four went for touchdowns).

JMU’s offensive line tells a similar story. The Dukes are loaded with talent, but could use more experience. Gerren Butler, Jahee Jackson, Tyree Chavious and Liam Fornadel are four names that especially come to mind. They’ve all seen their fair share of snaps, but additional experience will serve them all well. The offensive line concern comes in the form of chemistry and the QB under center. Over the past two seasons, Schor bailed out his offensive line by scrambling away from a number of near sacks. DiNucci might be able to provide similar abilities, but Johnson’s mobility pales in comparison to Schor’s. Should Johnson win the starting job, the offensive line will need to consistently create a strong pocket for Johnson or they Dukes might see their quarterback taking sacks left and right. This could prove difficult early in the season (see N.C. State on Sept. 1) given a talent, yet inexperienced offensive line.

Depth Chart Analysis

Quarterbacks: As mentioned before, the race is down to Cole Johnson and Ben DiNucci. Johnson is the better pure pocket passer and throws a marvelous deep ball, which is something the Dukes lacked for much of the season last year. DiNucci, on the other hand, adds value with his legs and is more similar to Schor, which could allow Kirkpatrick to make fewer tweaks to his scheme and play calling from the past two seasons.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Gage Moloney appears to be the future star QB, but DiNucci and Johnson, both juniors, will keep him sidelined from a starting gig for at least two more seasons.

Running backs: Jeez. The Dukes are OK at running back. Actually, they’re more than OK. JMU might need to invest in a second running back room with the number of capable backs currently on the roster. UCF transfer Jawon Hamilton joins the team with three years of eligibility remaining and will pair nicely with Percy Agyei-Obese following the departure of Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharp and Cardon Johnson after this season. For this year, the three seniors should carry the majority of the load, with Hamilton possessing the talent to press for carries.

Cardon Johnson’s health is always a question mark and Hamilton helps add depth in case Johnson goes down. Marcus Marshall showed flashes of greatness last season, but was largely inconsistent. Trai Sharp was a bulldog throughout the season as he runs with an unmatched tenacity despite lacking true breakout speed. Agyei-Obese has tremendous potential, but will likely have to wait his turn before shouldering a meaningful load. Eric Kirlew, a redshirt sophomore walk-on, provides additional depth, but will likely be battling for a roster spot in the coming years.

The graph below shows the percentage of returning yards on JMU’s offense. (4.4 percent of the Dukes’ 2017-18 passing yards (Cole Johnson and Hunter Etheridge) return. 79.9 percent of the Dukes’ 2017-18 rushing yards return. 48.6 percent of the Dukes’ 2017-18 receiving yards return.) 

Untitled design (1)

Wide receivers/tight ends: Riley Stapleton hopes to build off of a remarkably productive 2017 postseason. After a lackluster regular season, the big bodied Stapleton, he’s listed at 6-feet-5-inches tall, finally lived up to his potential. Stapleton failed to eclipse 64 yards receiving in the regular season before surpassing 100 yards twice in the postseason, including an eight-catch, 189-yard performance against Weber State. He also added seven catches for 107 yards in the national title game loss to NDSU. David Eldridge, 42 catches for 533 yards last year, is the clear cut No. 2 wide receiver.

After those two, a bounty of young guns need to fill roles. Ezrah Archie showed flashes last season out of the slot, but suffered an injury in spring ball and is sidelined for an extended period of time. Josh Sims and Kyndel Dean are both redshirt freshmen with slender frames that could slip into a slot receiver role with the loss of Archie and the graduation of John Miller. The Dukes also brought in Rakeem Davis, the younger brother of Rashard. He’s certainly got the bloodline to fill the slot receiver role, but might struggle breaking past a few of the redshirt freshmen in his first year. Devin Ravenel, the younger brother of Brandon, is another fresh face with JMU receiving pedigree in his blood.

Don’t sleep on Daniel Adu, Noah Beckley and Jake Brown as other redshirt freshmen more than capable of making an early impact. If you couldn’t tell, I’ve listed basically every young wide receiver on this list as fall camp and the early season will really determine which receivers have what it takes to make an impact this season. There’s a lot of uncertainty within the position after Eldridge and Stapleton.

At the tight end spot, Cheatham, Carlton and Cullen give the Dukes three legitimate threats at the position. Expect Cheatham to get the most action at tight end, but don’t be surprised at all to see Carlton help fill the slot receiver role as he has the body type and speed to be effective as a receiver over the middle of the field. Using Carlton, Cheatham and Stapleton at the same time would give the Dukes sizable receiving options that could make life much easier on a quarterback who would only need to throw a 50-50 ball for one of his three guys to have a shot.

Offensive line: I’ll keep things short and sweet. The Dukes are talented along the offensive line, but need continued development and experience. I love the young core of Gerren Butler, Jahee Jackson, Mac Patrick, Tyree Chavious and Liam Fornadel. J.T. Timming and Zaire Bethea are two others with tremendous upside. A number of others like Raymond Gillespie have great talent and give this group a chance to be the nation’s best offensive line.

Defensive line: How can a defensive line lose Simeyon Robinson, Andrew Ankrah, Cornell Urquhart and still get better? Reload with guys like Ron’Dell and Darrious Carter, John Daka and Wake Forest transfer Paris Black. The defensive line is going to be nasty. Expect great things from Daka, who is going to be a handful in passing situations. Despite losing key pieces, the defensive line won’t take a step back.

Linebackers: Dimitri Holloway, Bryce Maginley and Landon Word will play the biggest roles for JMU after the graduation of Brandon Hereford and the exit of Gus Little, who was expected to be a key contributor this season. JMU’s linebacking core isn’t necessarily an unknown, but the depth at the position is questionable. Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey is a head-hunting monster, but he’s only a redshirt freshman. Robert Carter Jr. owns a great special teams resume, but he’s listed at just 186 lbs. Time will tell which other linebackers can step up for the Dukes.

Defensive backs: Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland give JMU a pair of star corners to go with Ohio State transfer Wayne Davis Jr. at safety. Despite losing Raven Greene and Jordan Brown, JMU’s starting secondary is still frightening thanks to the addition of Davis Jr. Curtis Oliver and Charles Tutt give JMU added depth at corner. Look for D’Angelo Amos and Mike Cobbs to find their way onto the field at safety.

Special teams: Harry O’Kelly, a JMU folk hero, is the Dukes’ punter/running back. Tyler Gray and Ethan Ratke will compete for the starting kicker position. Expect Amos to return punts and Marcus Marshall to serve as a kick returner. The Dukes’ special teams unit is strong.

Schedule Analysis

JMU schedule

Realistically, every game is winnable. The N.C. State matchup favors the Wolfpack, but the Dukes have the firepower to remain competitive. JMU hasn’t lost a CAA game under Houston, but you’ve got to think the Dukes will drop a conference contest at some point. It’s nearly impossible to expect them to lose, though.

After a tough opener, the Dukes get easy contests against Norfolk State and Robert Morris. The Dukes don’t play at Bridgeforth Stadium until Sept. 15 as they have just five regular season home games. JMU should hold a winning record 2-1 or 3-0 heading into the CAA opener against William & Mary. The Dukes hold the edge there and then get a five-week stretch, six weeks including the Oct. 20 bye week, against formidable CAA foes in Richmond, Elon, Villanova, Stony Brook and New Hampshire. JMU avoids an up and coming Delaware team, but should be worried about the road tilt at New Hampshire on Nov. 3. It’s never easy to travel that far north, the weather should be on the colder side and UNH is almost always a playoff lock. The Wildcats return key talent and are expected to contend for the CAA title in 2018.

Final Assessment

If JMU can get solid quarterback play, the Dukes should rank in the top five nationally in scoring. If JMU’s linebackers play well, the Dukes should rank in the top five nationally in scoring defense. JMU has a number of questions (QB play, linebacker depth, young offensive linemen), but no shortage of talent. Expect the Dukes to easily answer their questions and earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. While there are plenty of talented teams in the FCS, it’s clear JMU and NDSU are the two top teams headed into 2018. For the Dukes, it’s national title or bust.

Questions, comments, concerns? Email me at conlinbf@dukes.jmu.edu or tweet me @BennettConlin

 

 

 

 

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