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.