3 Reasons JMU Football Upsets N.C. State

I know what you’re thinking, “Bennett, you do these countdown posts every Saturday, and today is Monday! What gives?!”

Let me explain. First, nobody is asking that question. If we’re going by last week’s numbers on traffic, nobody is even reading these articles, but I like the thought of having a massive following of outraged fans clamoring for my next post, so were going to pretend.

Second, I treated myself to a Red Sox-Orioles game this weekend for JMU Night. I went to get a JMU-themed Orioles hat and a chance to watch the best team in baseball in person. My girlfriend lives in Maryland, so I suppose that factored into the decision as well. Caroline, if you’re reading this, those three reasons for attending were in reverse order of importance.

As I left the stadium, someone asked where I got the JMU-Orioles hat and mentioned wanting one for his niece. Being a gentleman, I kindly gave him the hat for free and wished him a nice night. As he left, his friend let out a laugh and I quickly realized this man probably (definitely) didn’t have a niece. Regardless, the Orioles are about 850 games below .500, so I’ll let them win one.

Anyway, back to today.  I’ve spent the last week or two digesting every article written about both N.C. State and JMU football. Before eating them, I read them, too. I’ve learned more about the Wolfpack than I’ve ever cared to know, and I feel knowledgeable enough to write today’s article and share three reasons why I think JMU pulls off the upset on Sept. 1. I won’t be surprised if N.C. State wins, but I really like the Dukes’ chances, even if they haven’t announced a starting quarterback yet. Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about why I’m not writing an article titled “3 Ways to Tell the Perfect Dad Joke” or “3 Tips to Look Super Scrawny.”

Wait, what? Remain patient, non-existent readers, we’ll get there.

The other day, I tweeted about Maryland’s football controversy.

Not everyone enjoyed my tweet.

As the Twitter egg clearly stated “Stick to what you know.” Here’s the issue with that, folks. I’m most knowledgeable at making dad jokes and being small. But nobody wants to read about those topics. When they do, I promise I’ll never write a single tweet about football again. It’ll be exclusively bad puns and tips on how to workout without gaining an ounce of muscle.

Until then, I’m going to keep tweeting about college football. And journalism. And small business. Because I like those things. While my Twitter account might not be the most niche-specific account out there, it’s true to myself. I love entrepreneurship and the different factors that go into starting and running a business. Last year, I spent early August racing back and forth between JMU football training camp and my internship at the Small Business Development Center. JMU football isn’t the only thing I’m interested in, and that’s a good thing for me. There’s more to life than football.

If you don’t like the wide range of tweets, I don’t blame you at all. I’m not sure I’d like it if I were in your shoes. Luckily, the great people at Twitter don’t hold a gun to your head and make you read my tweets. Don’t worry, I won’t ever be offended if you hit unfollow.

In terms of my JMU football/sports knowledge, I think I’m qualified to write blog posts on my own website. Considering they’re blog posts. And it’s my website. A few years at The Breeze, a season of MadiZONE and some bylines for HERO Sports make me think I’m not just pulling stuff out of a hat when I talk JMU football. Would you agree, Twitter egg?

I’ll take that as a soft yes.

Defensive line play

No transition needed, let’s get back to the gridiron. I love JMU’s defensive line on paper, and I love it even more on grass. See, dad jokes! Darrious and Ron’Dell Carter join forces with John Daka, Matt Terrell, Paris Black, Adeeb Atariwa and Mike Greene to make up a deep and explosive group. Daka is a practice and scrimmage machine as he’s excelled in recent scrimmages and the spring game. He’ll be a problem off the edge. The two Carters are remarkable athletes and expected to be key contributors. The two defensive tackles in Atariwa and Greene will play a huge role this season, and I expect them to become tremendous run stoppers as the season develops.

In short, JMU’s defensive line is good enough to play against an FBS offensive line. In most FCS over FBS upsets, the offensive and defensive lines hold their own. It’s hard to spring an upset if you’re get demolished in the trenches. If JMU beats N.C. State, the defensive line will have to play well and disrupt the pocket.

Stellar secondary

N.C. State’s strength is without a doubt its passing game. The Wolfpack averaged just over 270 passing yards per game last season, and they return veteran quarterback Ryan Finley. Kelvin Harmon serves as Finley’s best receiving threat, and the Dukes’ secondary will face its toughest passing test since they played UNC back in 2016.

Luckily for JMU, and the No. 1 reason I think this upset is more than the dream of many JMU fans, is that the secondary might be JMU’s best position group. Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland man the corner positions after combining for 15 interceptions a year ago. Adding in Wayne Davis Jr. gives the Dukes a solid weapon at safety, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him paired with D’Angelo Amos. The Dukes currently have three other guys vying for those two safety spots as well.

This doesn’t even account for corners Charles Tutt and Curtis Oliver, both of whom possess great talent and meaningful experience as Dukes. For N.C. State, Finley went 339 passes across the 2016 and 2017 seasons without throwing an interception. JMU intercepted 31 of its opponents’ 459 passes in 2017. It’ll be good vs. good on Sept. 1. Bob Trott emphasizes turnovers, and JMU has the weapons to force an interception or two on one of the more accurate passers in college football. Without a great secondary, JMU wouldn’t stand much of a chance, but the Dukes boast one of the best secondaries in the FCS.

Reliable running game

JMU stays in the game because of its defensive line and secondary, but the Dukes win because of their running game.

Cardon Johnson is an FBS killer, and the Dukes as a team perform well on the ground against FBS foes.

Take a look at the last three games vs. FBS teams.

2015 vs. SMU: 52 carries, 440 yards, 3 TDs

Vad Lee ran for a school-record 276 yards and became the first D-I quarterback to rush and pass for over 275 yards in the same game. JMU won 48-45.

2016 vs. UNC: 50 carries, 209 yards, 3 TDs

Cardon Johnson also added a 68-yard touchdown reception in the 56-28 loss. Despite the loss, JMU led 21-14 after a quarter in Mike Houston’s first season. The issue wasn’t the offense, it was the defense getting torched for 462 yards and three touchdowns through the air. With a much more experienced secondary this season, the Dukes stand a better chance of limiting busted coverages.

2017 vs. ECU: 42 carries, 410 yards, 4 TDs

Johnson excelled, tallying 265 yards on just 17 carries. Marcus Marshall added 88 yards and a touchdown as well. The Dukes ran wild against a mediocre ECU defense.

TOTAL: 144 carries, 1,059 yards, 10 TDs.

The Dukes are averaging 353 yards and 3.33 TDs on the ground in their last three matchups with FBS teams.

N.C. State’s defense is much more comparable to UNC’s, but I do expect more than 200 yards rushing from JMU against the Wolfpack. This puts the Dukes right in the game if their defense doesn’t allow a 56-point explosion like they did against the Tar Heels. With a better defensive team, and an opposing offense that isn’t quite as explosive as UNC’s 2016 squad, I like JMU’s chances of knocking off the Wolfpack.

The Dukes still need strong quarterback play and to handle a hostile road environment, but assuming this game won’t be close because JMU’s an FCS school is absurd. JMU has the talent, the experience and the needed personnel to handle an FBS school of N.C. State’s caliber. JMU pulls the upset on Sept. 1 behind an elite group of running backs and a defense that’s FBS caliber.

FINAL: JMU 31, N.C. State 27 

 

 

 

 

4 Keys to JMU Football Training Camp

JMU football opened training camp Friday for the third time under head coach Mike Houston. In his previous two seasons, Houston led the Dukes to a 28-2 record and two national title game appearances. As the Dukes enter year three, the expectations are higher than ever for a storied FCS program.

Nobody doubts JMU’s talent. The team’s roster features All-American caliber players at nearly every position. Despite the talent and expectations, questions surround the Dukes. Let’s take a look at the four biggest questions surrounding JMU football’s 2018 training camp and the key to the Dukes’ answering them.

Question: Who’s the starting quarterback?

Key: JMU needs to feel confident in one quarterback heading into the season opener at N.C. State.

The Dukes could try out both Ben DiNucci and Cole Johnson against Norfolk State, Robert Morris and William & Mary and win all three games, but they’d much rather have one guy and stick with him, especially in the season opener against an ACC squad.

DiNucci had the better spring game, but it’s still a two-horse race. DiNucci is more athletic and can make more plays with his legs, but Johnson throws a better ball, especially down the field. With a loaded group of running backs, the coaching staff may opt for a player like Johnson that can keep the defense from loading the box.

Bryan Schor shifted the dynamic of the 2016-17 season when he became more comfortable throwing the ball downfield. When Schor connected on deep throws, JMU’s offense played on a different level. With a receiver like Riley Stapleton headlining the team’s offensive weapons, it’s critical JMU plays a quarterback able to consistently connect with him on deeper throws. For DiNucci, camp will be spent proving he can do this. For Johnson, it’s about showing that his passing ability surpasses what DiNucci brings to the table athletically. It should be a heated battle. Even with the spring game, I wouldn’t dismiss Johnson’s chances just yet.

Question: How will the Dukes manage their loaded backfield this season?

Key: Finding a consistent rotation.

An embarrassment of riches. That’s the only way to accurately describe what the Dukes have at the running back position. The key with the running backs will be riding the hot hand and keeping everyone healthy throughout the season, especially Cardon Johnson. Expect Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp to carry the load this season with Jawon Hamilton and Percy Agyei-Obese getting worked into the rotation as well. I’d expect heavy doses of Johnson and Marshall against N.C. State with the other three backs getting increased workloads in the rest of the nonconference schedule.

When the Dukes move into conference play, I’d expect the offense to ride the hot hand and give the backs performing at the highest level the most touches. This could easily vary on a game-by-game basis, much like it did last season.

Deciding how this rotation will work against N.C. State is a training camp key for the coaching staff.

Question: Can the Dukes consistently win the battle in the trenches?

Key: The offensive and defensive line come close to reaching their full potential.

The Dukes don’t need perfection up front to dominate the line of scrimmage. The offensive line features players like Mac Patrick, Tyree Chavious and Liam Fornadel that all boast supreme talent. If the Dukes get their young offensive linemen anywhere close to reaching their full potential, they’ll be a handful for most teams and a legitimate contender for a national title.

Defensively, the same applies. Ron’Dell and Darrious Carter headline a potentially frightening defensive front. John Daka has all the athleticism and potential needed to be an elite pass rusher, while guys like Mike Greene possess what it takes to stuff the middle in the run game. There’s an abundance of talent on both the offensive and defensive fronts. If both units reach their potential this season, or come close to reaching it, JMU is set up for a special season. Training camp plays a meaningful role in preparing to reach maximum potential.

Much like the running back position, figuring out the rotation will be critical to the overall success of both the offensive and defensive lines. Expect the clear starters and unexpected contributors to emerge the week of August 20.

Question: Who’s the third receiving option?

Key: Finding a player that complements Stapleton and David Eldridge. 

This could even come in the form of Clayton Cheatham or Nick Carlton at the tight end position. Regardless, the Dukes need someone to help take the pressure off Stapleton and Eldridge. Given Stapleton’s dominant postseason, which included three touchdowns and numerous “He just Moss’d him!” catches, defenses will invest heavily on stopping him. If the other receiving threats can perform well enough to get Stapleton one-on-one coverage with minimal safety help over the top, the Dukes’ passing game will have a field day.

Summary: Every team enters training camp with questions. If you’re a JMU fan, there’s no reason to panic as the Dukes look like one of the two best teams in the country heading into Week 1. If the Dukes can find answers to the four questions above in either training camp or the first few weeks of the season, they’ll have a tremendous shot at making three national title games in three seasons under Houston.

 

5 Reasons JMU’s Harry O’Kelly Should Start at Running Back

JMU football faces a massive problem. The Dukes lack skill and depth at the running back position. Running backs coach De’Rail Sims likely spends his nights awake, pacing his bedroom and wondering how he’ll scrap together respectable performances this season. It might sound crazy, but the Dukes need to lean on a player known for his punting. That’s right, Harry O’Kelly.

The Dukes need to start Harry O’Kelly at running back. It’s not ideal, but it’s the only decision that makes any sense. Here’s why:

  1. Weak position group

As I just mentioned, each JMU running back has glaring flaws. See below.

Cardon Johnson: If Cardon’s car broke down, he’d probably just toss it on his shoulders and carry it to the shop. He looks like a linebacker. I think I once heard somebody say that muscle is heavier than fat. Cardon’s 200-pound muscular frame means he weighs about 500 pounds in regular person weight.

Who’s the last marathon winner to look like the Rock? Sure, Johnson has been successful in the past, but are 25 games, 312 carries and over 2,000 career rushing yards really enough of a sample size for us to think he’s a solid option?

Marcus Marshall: Did you see how quickly he got down the field on his touchdowns runs against South Dakota State? Moving that fast makes him a huge injury risk. It’s basic science. If you’re driving a car 70 mph and get into a car accident, your car’s damage is going to substantially worse than if you were driving 5 mph.

My advice to Marcus, as a 12-minute miler myself, is that slow and steady wins the race. He should head to Barnes and Noble and pick up a copy of “The Tortoise and The Hare” for some light summer reading.

Trai Sharp:  Last season, he ran 36 times for 185 yards and a touchdown in a 20-10 victory on the road. For someone that loves embarrassing Danny Rocco’s defense, how will he react to Delaware not being on JMU’s schedule this season?

Jawon Hamilton: Hamilton, while remarkably gifted, transferred from UCF. How will he handle the transition of going from a self-proclaimed national champion to an actual national champion? It might be difficult to adjust to a trophy case filled with actual trophies and not imaginary achievements.

Percy Agyei-Obese: His last name is really hard to pronounce. It’ll be hard for Sims to call on Agyei-Obese to enter the game if Percy isn’t sure if he’s saying “Agyei-Obese or Cardon Johnson.” Granted, they don’t sound anything alike, but with crowd noise at Bridgeforth, sounds get jumbled.

2. No wear on his tires

O’Kelly barely has any mileage on his legs. He’s only had three carries his entire college career. Talk about fresh legs!

He’s also averaging 21 yards per carry. Imagine giving him 250 carries next year. He’d finish the year with an astounding 5,250 yards. Equally astounding, his averages suggest he won’t score a single touchdown. This sounds crazy, but numbers never lie.

3. Spin cycle

Part laundry machine, part man. O’Kelly leaves defenders spinning deliriously after he pulls out his juke moves. Few players in the country possess the shiftiness of O’Kelly.

4. Little film on him

What’s a football coach’s biggest fear? Not having film on opposing players. Good luck figuring out how to stop a Harry O’Kelly Wildcat package by watching three fake punts on film. That’s the equivalent of trying to pilot a helicopter after watching a two-minute YouTube video. It’s not happening.

5. Add to his legendary status

He’s Australian, leads the team in yards per carry, pulls off fake punts in critical moments and cracks jokes on Twitter. What better way to add to the legacy of everybody’s favorite Duke than to let him start at running back?

Here’s a collection of O’Kelly’s best Twitter work:

 

 

JMU Football’s Most Valuable Player: Rashad Robinson

This blurry screenshot (it’s artistic) was taken from this highlight video

A few weeks ago, I posed a hypothetical question on Twitter.

We’ll ignore the fact that I lied about posting this article last week and get on to the rules of this fictional game.

  • The player must be on the 2018 roster.
  • You only get the player for the 2018 season.
    • Picking a freshman for his future value won’t work in this hypothetical.
  • Those are the only rules. You can pick any player on the roster as long as you have some justification.

My Pick: Rashad Robinson

I’m going with the CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year for a few reasons. I looked at position importance, consistency, playmaking ability and leadership/intangibles.

Position Importance: I don’t think cornerback is the most important position on the field, but having a lockdown corner is quite the commodity. Being able to shut down an elite receiver/one side of the field can change the outcome of games. I consider Robinson the best corner in the FCS. His ability to limit star receivers and contribute timely turnovers makes his role valuable.

Consistency: This is one of many areas where Robinson excels. He rarely gets beat by wide receivers, and he’s played in 38 games over the course of three seasons, showing that he’s not a big injury risk. If I’m picking a player to build my team around, I need to know they can deliver. Robinson delivers time and time again. In last year’s season-opening win over East Carolina, Robinson grabbed two timely interceptions. Fast forward to the FCS Semifinal against South Dakota State, and the rising senior tallied a career-high 12 tackles, including a sack. He improved as the year progressed. Few players across the country showed the consistent production that Robinson did in 2017.

Playmaking: One forced fumble, one touchdown, 1.5 sacks, seven interceptions, 16 passes defended and 51 tackles makes for one heck of a stat line. Robinson put together a monster 2017 campaign and made impact plays all season. He was barely ran down on an interception return against William & Mary that could’ve easily resulted in a touchdown, and redeemed himself with an interception return for a touchdown in the following week’s win over New Hampshire. When he makes an interception, he’s a threat to score.

His playmaking hasn’t been a one-year trend, either. During his freshman season, Robinson recorded an interception, a blocked kick, a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown and a CAA-leading three fumble recoveries. Building your team around a defensive player requires a special talent with the ability to create turnovers and make game-altering plays. Robinson does just that.

Leadership: He’s an experienced senior that leads by example. He’s relatively reserved in media obligations and is quick to credit his teammates. By all accounts, he’s the type of player you want on your team. He’s a good teammate, ridiculously good athlete and consistent performer. His ability and humility make him a player that younger athletes within the program look up to for guidance. If you’re a defensive player, especially in the secondary, you’re looking to emulate Robinson.

Choosing a player from JMU’s roster to build a team around isn’t easy. With players like Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall, Riley Stapleton and Darrious Carter, it’s almost impossible to go wrong. I think Robinson stands slightly above the rest because of his consistency.

Disagree? Send me (@BennettConlin) a tweet with your pick. If you’re lucky, I’ll retweet your suggestion to my massive following of 300+ people, many of whom are relatives. 

CAA Football 2018 Preseason Predictions

Tuesday marks CAA Media Day, which (kind of) signals the beginning of JMU football’s 2018 season. The Dukes haven’t lost a conference game under head coach Mike Houston, and everyone expects JMU to be the preseason pick to win the conference again in 2018. While the Dukes are the CAA favorite, several other squads should make a legitimate run at the conference crown. Ahead of CAA Media Day, I share my thoughts on where each team stands headed into the start of the season.

1. JMU

The Dukes lead the pack for numerous reasons. Defensively, JMU’s secondary could be one of the nation’s best. Corners Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland both have the potential to earn a spot on NFL rosters next year and should make it difficult for opposing wide receivers to reach their statistical averages. I’d expect very few receivers to crack 100 yards receiving against the Dukes.

Darrious and Ron’Dell Carter create a fearsome defensive line. If unproven yet talented players like John Daka live up to the hype, the defensive line could outperform last year’s group.

Ben DiNucci and Cole Johnson hope to earn the starting quarterback gig for the Dukes. After losing Bryan Schor to graduation, the quarterback position becomes one of the biggest question marks for the Dukes. There’s no guarantee that either DiNucci or Johnson play up to Schor’s level, but with the depth the Dukes possess at running back, they might not need to. Riley Stapleton and David Eldridge give the eventual quarterback two solid receiving options. The team’s depth at tight end helps make up for a lack of experience at the wide receiver position outside of Stapleton and Eldridge.

2. New Hampshire

A staple in the postseason, this is one of New Hampshire’s best teams in recent memory. The Wildcats return their leading passer, rusher, receiver and tackler in 2018. The offense, led by quarterback Trevor Knight, has the potential to be particularly scary. Senior wide receiver Neil O’Connor averaged just under 100 yards receiver per game last season, and figures to be just as dynamic this year.

On defense, linebacker Dean Quinlen returns. The 230-pound beast tallied 124 tackles in 2017. The team also returns Jae’Wuan Horton, who totaled 8.5 sacks last year.

With playmakers on both sides of the ball and six home games, including five of their last seven contests, the Wildcats have a legitimate chance to challenge JMU for the CAA title. If New Hampshire plays up to its potential, the Dukes will have a very hard time winning on December 3.

3. Delaware

Danny Rocco brought a breath of fresh air to a program in need of some energy. Despite abysmal offensive showings in 2017, Delaware finished the season 7-4 and a borderline playoff team. This season, the Blue Hens have a legitimate shot to make a run at a CAA and national title.

Linebacker Troy Reeder headlines the team’s ferocious defense. Reeder, a Penn State transfer, recorded 89 tackles last season and earned First Team All-CAA honors. He’s an NFL prospect with great size, instincts and leadership ability. There’s no doubt the defense has the pieces around Reeder to once again remain among the conference’s elite, but can the Blue Hens score enough points to win a CAA title?

We should get a feel for whether the Blue Hens are actually a national title contender when they head to Fargo to take on North Dakota State on Sept. 22. That’s a must-watch game for any CAA football fan.

Look for that game to be a turning point in Delaware’s season. I don’t see the Blue Hens winning, but with a bye week following the showdown, the Blue Hens will be able to regroup with newfound knowledge about how they compare to the best team in the country. Delaware will look completely different when the postseason comes around compared to when they play the Bison on Sept. 22.

4. Villanova

A 5-6 record is not what the doctor ordered in Mark Ferrante’s first season as the head coach. Despite the sub .500 mark, Villanova was a good football team. The Wildcats nearly won a game over FBS opponent Temple, they were in the game against JMU until the fourth quarter, and they started the season 4-2 before running into a tough slate of games and a handful of unfortunate injuries.

I like Villanova’s 2018 schedule with both JMU and New Hampshire travelling to Pennsylvania. I like the team’s steady defense and the return of quarterback Zach Bednarczyk. If he stays healthy, expect Villanova to contend for a CAA title and playoff berth.

5. Richmond

Losing Kyle Lauletta hurts, but Kevin Johnson offers a ton of potential at the quarterback position. Expect him to contribute immediately to an offense that boasts arguably the nation’s best receiving corps. The Spiders won’t be perfect, but an explosive passing offense will keep Richmond in almost every game it plays.

Additionally, Richmond’s schedule is favorable as it doesn’t face New Hampshire and it hosts JMU, Delaware and Villanova. I think Richmond makes a legitimate run at a playoff berth under second-year head coach Russ Huesman.

CAA standings

Screenshot of 2017 CAA standings from CAAsports.com. 

6. Albany

The Great Danes luck out as they avoid both JMU and Villanova this season, but do face Delaware and New Hampshire in consecutive weeks late in the season. With a manageable home slate and the return of running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks from a 2017 leg injury, Albany finds itself in a perfect position to achieve a winning season. Don’t expect Albany to win the CAA, but the Great Danes won’t be a push over.

7. Elon

I have my doubts about Elon. While I like what the Phoenix did last year (8-4, third in the CAA), I’m not so sure they’ll be able to replicate 2017’s success. Despite winning eight games, Elon allowed more points than it scored and didn’t win a single game by more than eight points. Quarterback Davis Cheek has potential heading into his sophomore campaign, but I think Elon will struggle to find the same level of success this season against an improved CAA, especially from Sept. 29 – Oct. 20.

8. Stony Brook

Quarterback Joe Carbone returns following dramatic improvement in last year’s junior campaign. After throwing five touchdowns to 20 interceptions in his first two seasons, Carbone tossed 23 touchdowns to just eight interceptions (five came against JMU) all of last year.

Defensively, senior linebacker Shayne Lawless leads the way. He’s a solid tackler in the middle of the Stony Brook defense. Defensive lineman John Haggart is another impact player on the defensive side of the ball, which is where Stony Brook excels.

I like the Seawolves, but Carbone isn’t an elite quarterback, and his career completion percentage of 54 gives me pause. Factor in a tough schedule, and I don’t see Stony Brook making the postseason in 2018.

9. Rhode Island

Rhode Island continues to steadily improve. Offensively, the Rams return star receiver Aaron Parker and have two senior quarterbacks with playing experience last season. Senior linebacker Justin Hogan anchors a defense that performed better last season after a horrendous 2016.

Head coach Jim Fleming is slowly steadying the ship. Don’t expect URI to contend for a CAA title, but the team could make a run at 5-7 wins if a few breaks go the Rams’ way.

10. Maine

Running back Josh Mack carried the Black Bears in 2017. The team, which relied on steady defense and a heavy dose of Mack, now has to adjust to Mack’s transfer to Liberty. This is a huge blow to a team already relegated to the lower tier of the CAA. Look for Maine to struggle mightily in 2018.

11. Towson 

Towson’s schedule is brutal. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Ryan Stover showed flashes last season, but he did fire 13 interceptions to his 11 touchdowns. Don’t expect Stover to be handed the starting job without competition. The team lacked offense last season, and I expect them to fall behind a rapidly improving conference. With its schedule, winning more than three games will be an accomplishment.

12. William & Mary

Sophomore quarterback Shon Mitchell could be special. Unfortunately, William & Mary went 0-8 in the CAA last season and won just two games overall. The conference didn’t get any worse, and teams without a steady quarterback presence are going to struggle in 2018. Mitchell is a year away from taking his game to the next level. Until they show otherwise, the Tribe starts the year at No. 12 in the CAA Power Rankings.

The 6 Best Plays From JMU Football’s 2017-18 Season

Screenshot from ESPN highlight video

Another week, another countdown to the start of JMU football season. We’re now just 42 days away from the 2018 season. It feels far away, but with CAA Media Day later this week, we’re getting close to fall Saturdays. Before we look forward, let’s look back at the six best plays from JMU’s 2017-18 season.

6. Bryan Schor’s scramble vs. Delaware

Schor scrambled like a man possessed in the team’s 20-10 win over Delaware. You’d think that after a certain point, Delaware’s defensive linemen would’ve stopped buying the pump fakes. They didn’t. He paused and he faked and he bobbed and he danced and he juked. It was silly. While he didn’t pick up the first down, Schor had fans on the edge of their seats with this scramble drill.

5. Harry O’Kelly’s fake punt vs. New Hampshire

Yes, the fake punt against North Dakota State came in a bigger game, but the way O’Kelly turned around his defender against New Hampshire felt unfair and honestly, a tad rude. One moment you think you’re about to demolish a punter, the next moment you’re spinning around grasping for the breeze an Australian legend just left in his wake. O’Kelly finished with more rushing yards (30) for the game than UNH’s entire team (27).

4. Trai Sharp’s game-winning touchdown vs. Richmond

Last season, JMU’s offense seemed to go, “Oh s**t, we’re almost out of time. Let’s go win this thing.” This was evident in the team’s 20-13 win over Richmond.

With both defenses battling it out all game long, the Dukes operated their two-minute offense to perfection. They marched down the field behind the powerful rushing of Trai Sharp, and secured a win over a conference rival. Sharp tallied 54 rushing yards in the 71-yard drive, including the game-winning run from seven yards out.

3. Rashad Robinson’s interception vs. East Carolina

This interception in the end zone serves as an optical illusion. Robinson had his back to the receiver, but somehow managed to wrestle the ball away in what appeared to be a sure touchdown. Robinson came out of the scrum with the ball and a monster turnover in JMU’s opening week victory over the 2017-18 season.

2. Riley Stapleton’s game-tying touchdown reception vs. Weber State

This difficult catch, and perfect throw, helped keep JMU’s season alive. On third-and-9 late in the fourth quarter of the FCS quarterfinals, Schor fired a bomb down the left side, Stapleton reached above the outstretched arm of the Weber State defender and hauled in a touchdown to help the Dukes tie the game up. His reaction upon scoring the touchdown screams, “I’m a beast.”

Trai Sharp converted the two-point conversion on the next play to even things at 28.

1. Ethan Ratke’s game-winning field goal vs. Weber State

He entered the season as the backup kicker. He ended the FCS quarterfinals as the team’s hero. Ratke, who would look undersized on JMU’s golf team, stepped up in a pressure-packed situation and acted like he was practicing an extra point on an empty practice field in August. He was calm, cool and collected when nailing the 46-yard boot.

The play that ended JMU’s most thrilling game of the 2017-18 season takes the top spot in my list of top plays of the year.

7 Reasons Everett Withers Deserves Credit for JMU’s Success

Image credit: JMU Sports YouTube account.

There’s no doubt Mike Houston is the right person to lead JMU football. With that being said, former head coach Everett Withers deserves credit for the success of the JMU program the past few years.

While Withers has been leading a less than stellar Texas State team, his former recruits have been showing out in Harrisonburg. The Dukes are 28-2 under Houston with two CAA titles and one national championship. I don’t believe they would’ve reached this level of success under Withers, but that doesn’t mean the former Ohio State defensive coordinator doesn’t deserve at least a little credit.

It’s easy to take jabs at Texas State’s record, but instead, let’s overview seven ways JMU still feels Everett Withers’ impact.

7. Reengaged fan base

After a few mediocre years, especially offensively, under Mickey Matthews, the JMU fanbase was ready for a change. In 2013, Matthews’ last season, the Dukes dropped their final three games to miss the playoffs and finish 6-6 overall. This came one season after dropping their final two games to go 7-4 and fall short of the postseason. Enter Everett.

Withers came to JMU and immediately added a jolt to the program. After starting 2-3 in 2014, the Dukes reeled off seven consecutive victories behind Vad Lee before succumbing to Liberty 26-21 in a home playoff game they could’ve (and maybe should’ve) won. The next season brought ESPN’s “College GameDay,” nine more wins and a playoff bye before falling to Colgate in another game the Dukes had opportunities to win.

6. Added swagger 

Withers coached, and recruited, some confident dudes. When I think of the Withers era I think of the freshman version of Jimmy Moreland and guys like Vad Lee, Domo Taylor, Rashad Robinson, Trai Sharp and Bryan Schor. Withers added talented players with tons of confidence. Not only did Withers bring out the best in returning players, but he brought the best out of many returning players, especially those on the offensive side of the ball.

Add in the 45,879,617 new uniforms the team added under Withers, and the team’s swagger took a noticeable jump forward. While I’m sure fans would’ve traded playoff wins for new helmets, those additions do, and did, play a role in recruiting.

Not sold on the moxie of these players? Watch these videos.

 

5. Offensive explosion

In 2013, an average JMU offense trotted onto the field every week. In 2014, a Vad-Lee led offense improved each week, and became a formidable force. In 2015, the offense became elite. The numbers tell the story.

2013 (Matthews)

Touchdowns – 44

Total yards – 4,884

Points per game – 28.25

2014 (Withers)

Touchdowns – 60

Total yards – 6,300

Points per game – 35.69

2015 (Withers)

Touchdowns – 71

Total yards – 6,345

Points per game – 44.25

JMU’s 2014-15 teams were the original creators of #PartyInTheEndZone.

4. Improved recruiting

I’ll start this by saying Mickey Matthews brought incredible talent to JMU. This isn’t meant as a comparison of those two coaches, but rather an explanation as to why Withers deserves credit for JMU’s current success.

He brought in guys like Rashad Robinson, Bryan Schor, Vad Lee and Riley Stapleton just to name a few. He wasn’t a perfect coach, but his abilities as a recruiter put him in an elite field among FCS coaches. Some of these recruits are All-American caliber players heading into the 2018 season.

3. “College GameDay”

Lee and Withers both contributed tremendously to ESPN’s “College GameDay’s” 2015 appearance in the ‘Burg. Withers had ties to Urban Meyer’s coaching tree and helped put the Dukes at 7-0 heading into the highly-anticipated showdown with Richmond. GameDay helped put the team on the national radar, and Withers is a big reason why the show came to Harrisonburg.

2. Vad Lee

Thanks to ties to Lee during the quarterback’s high school recruiting process, Withers drew the star quarterback to Harrisonburg after the gunslinger grew tired of running the triple option at Georgia Tech. This ignited JMU’s fast rise to national prominence.

Imagine if Lee doesn’t get injured in 2015. Yes, the defense was subpar. Yes, the team probably still would’ve fallen to Richmond. On the flip side, with Lee, JMU has a good chance of beating William & Mary and entering the postseason with a single loss and a bye. Colgate played a great playoff game, especially in the opening possessions, but I don’t think there’s an FCS expert that thinks the Dukes would’ve lost to Colgate with Lee at quarterback.

The next week, JMU would’ve hosted an unseeded Sam Houston State team in what would’ve likely been a shootout. Most don’t remember it, but the weather in Harrisonburg for that potential December game was 60 degrees and sunny. Perfect for a high-octane offense like JMU’s to excel. The ideal weather also entices more fans to attend the game.

While the Bearkats had plenty of firepower in their own right, I like JMU winning a home shootout with Lee running the show. The Dukes would’ve then traveled to top-seeded Jacksonville State and faced North Dakota State in the title game, assuming a win over the Gamecocks. JMU wouldn’t have won the whole thing with those two programs in its way, but an FCS Semifinal appearance looks good on the resume and puts the Dukes a defense away from seriously contending for a title.

Obviously, Lee did get hurt and the scenario played out differently, but it’s unfair to say Withers failed expectations in 2015 when he lost arguably the nation’s best player.

If you don’t remember the extent of Vad’s greatness, watch this.

Lee helped put JMU back on the national radar, and Withers brought Lee to the Friendly City.

1. Setting the stage

JMU’s defense struggled under Withers. The team allowed over 400 yards per game and roughly 28 points per game in both seasons with the defensive-minded coach at the helm. There’s no doubt the team needed to improve defensively in coming seasons to compete for national titles.

Mike Houston fixed the defense. He changed the locker room culture. He kept an explosive spread offense. He won a national title. There’s no debating Houston’s value to the JMU program. Withers also deserves credit. He provided a jolt of energy to a frustrated fanbase, brought Vad to Harrisonburg and lead the team to 18 wins in two seasons.

Houston is a perfect fit for JMU, but as days, weeks and months turn into years, let’s not forget the impact Withers had on JMU’s program. He set the stage for Houston to take the wheel and quickly turn the Dukes into a national power.

While many saw flaws in JMU’s 2015 team, the Dukes entered the postseason as the No. 5 seed. Withers built a team ready to be molded into a title contender. Houston did that and more.

Abrasive or not, Withers helped JMU’s program tremendously and deserves at least a little credit for the current state of the program.