Behind Enemy Lines Early Look: James Madison
In an effort to bring you in-depth insight on the opposing teams that West Virginia plays, WVSports.com goes Behind Enemy Lines for an early look at the season opening opponent James Madison and what to expect from the Dukes from Daily News-Record beat writer Greg Madia.
Madia also has the unique perspective of being a West Virginia University graduate and spending time as a staff writer at WVSports.com.
1. How good can this James Madison team be and how do you compare it to some of the clubs over the previous couple years? Where are the strengths and what has made this program so successful?
When former James Madison coach Mike Houston departed for East Carolina this past December, he left behind a loaded roster for first-year Dukes coach Curt Cignetti. The program is full of experienced players who have competed for national championships, thrived in postseason play and who even have knocked off FBS opponents before. This version of the team features 20 of 22 starters back, but replace their biggest loss - All-American cornerback Jimmy Moreland, a seventh-round pick of the Washington Redskins - with 2017 All-American cornerback Rashad Robinson, who missed all of last season with turf toe and is coming off of injury. That said, with the experience of those 20 players and the fact that they're pretty talented athletes, too, JMU should be improved off of its 9-4 season last year. I don't know if this group is as good as the 2016 team, which won the FCS national title, but the makeup of the squad is similar. As far as the program's success, there are few reasons why it's been able to sustain success even through multiple coaching changes. The primary reason is because it's the best-funded FCS program in the country with facilities and amenities not many of its FCS peers come close to. The other big reason for success is that the Dukes can compete in recruiting with FBS programs. Great recruiting areas like Richmond, northern Virginia, the 757 and the state of North Carolina aren't far from Harrisonburg and on its roster, JMU has multiple players who had FBS scholarship offers out of high school, but opted to play at JMU instead.
2. What's the deal at quarterback? Who gets the nod and what does he do well?
The quarterback situation is intriguing considering Cignetti opened up the competition during the spring even though former Pittsburgh quarterback Ben DiNucci spent all of last season as JMU's starting signal-caller. DiNucci, a senior, competed with redshirt junior Cole Johnson and redshirt sophomore Gage Moloney during those 15 practices. One reason for not simply handing DiNucci the job again is because he was inconsistent last year. Some weeks, he was the best player on the field like when he combined for five touchdowns against Rhode Island or ran for more than 100 yards and three scores against Towson, but other weeks his turnovers were detrimental in losses. In the Dukes' second-round playoff loss at Colgate, DiNucci threw five interceptions. My take as JMU looks toward August camp is that the job is DiNucci's to lose. With the help of Cignetti, a former quarterback at West Virginia and quarterback coach at previous stops, and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery, who coached Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (Ohio), DiNucci should benefit and cut down on mistakes.
3. How is this team going to attack offensively? Who are the play makers to watch?
Cignetti wants to run the football and have his team lead not only the Colonial Athletic Association in rushing, but also lead the FCS in it. You'll see some run-pass option incorporated, just like most college programs use, as well as some play-action pass, but Cignetti, who worked at Alabama under Nick Saban before rising as a head coach himself, learned from Saban to lean on a rushing attack. JMU graduated its top three running backs - Marcus Marshall, Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharp - from last year's team, but junior Percy Agyei-Obese and former Central Florida starter Jawon Hamilton probably could've started for any team in the FCS outside of JMU last year. A heavy dose of Agyei-Obese and Hamilton, along with DiNucci, who does use the run game effectively, should open things up on the outside for DiNucci in the passing game. Redshirt freshman sophomore Kyndel Dean and redshirt junior Jake Brown proved to be capable receivers last year, but transfer additions of former West Virginia wide receiver Dillon Spalding and former Penn State slot receiver Brandon Polk should boost the passing game. The team's best receiver is Riley Stapleton, but it's unclear if he'll be available for the opener against West Virginia since he is facing punishment from the school after pleading no contest to a false imprisonment charge this past spring in his hometown of Indiana, Pa. The offense's best player might be offensive tackle Liam Fornadel, an All-American candidate, who is as steady as can be.
4. Same on the defensive side. What is the scheme and who should West Virginia fans know about?
So part of the team's evolution from a good program to a great program had to do with what Houston and former defensive coordinator Bob Trott did with the Dukes' defense. The four-man front will still be in place as Cignetti hired former Maine defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman, who ran a system at Maine that was very similar to what JMU did over the past three seasons under the previous regime. Hetherman likes to use pressure and bring it from different levels, and it's not like the Dukes lack pass rushers. Defensive end John Daka, a preseason All-American, had 17 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last year and is a nightmare off the edge for any opposing offensive linemen. He pairs nicely with fellow defensive lineman Ron'Dell Carter, who will play some end and some tackle depending on how the team needs to use him. At linebacker, Landan Word and Dimitri Holloway have multiple years of starting experience under their belts and in the secondary former Ohio State cornerback Wayne Davis plays a hybrid safety/linebacker/nickel corner spot for Madison. Plus, Robinson is as reliable as they come in man coverage at cornerback and is an NFL prospect.
5. James Madison has become a transfer destination of sorts lately. Who all could play a major role in this game?
Yeah Keenan, that's for sure. If you look up and down JMU's roster, you'll see plenty of former ACC and Big 10 talent. DiNucci, Hamilton, Polk, Carter, Word, Davis. There's more, too. And they'll all play against WVU. The reason why JMU has become a destination for FBS transfers is because the Dukes have the best FBS program outside of Fargo, North Dakota, and those players dropping down from FBS to FCS don't want to sit out, but also want to remain relevant and still keep their shot at the NFL alive. Houston's theory was to bring in transfers that could help for multiple seasons, so it didn't disrupt the culture of the locker room. Cignetti has followed that up with a similar thought and used the transfer portal well to add where JMU has needs like at receiver and on the defensive line. Along with Polk and Spalding, the Dukes also added former Temple defensive lineman Antonio Colclough last month.
6. It's too early for a prediction, but what do you think about this match up and the potential that James Madison could pull off a win in Morgantown? What needs to happen for that to occur?
Although James Madison will get a $550,000 payday for playing this game, that's not the only thing the Dukes will want when they arrive in Morgantown. Because of the culture that's in place at Madison, JMU will expect to not only compete, but win. I don't know if that'll happen, but JMU players won't just accept a loss because they're playing against an FBS opponent. The Dukes have won two of their last four against FBS competition, winning at SMU in 2015 and ECU in 2017 while playing N.C. State very close last year. For a JMU win to happen, DiNucci would have to protect the ball and they'd probably need to get a momentum-shifting play on special teams like they've had throughout the program's biggest wins over the past few seasons. Punt returner D'Angelo Amos was an All-American last year after leading the country in punt return yards and punt return touchdowns.
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