With National Signing Day comes head coach Everett Withers’ first concrete mark on the JMU football program. The Dukes announced their 14 signees for this year’s recruiting class yesterday.
A highlight of the class is Georgia Tech transfer, redshirt junior quarterback Vad Lee. Also added to the quarterback mix is freshman Rob Nittolo from Hillsborough High School in New Jersey, who enrolled at JMU this semester to participate in spring drills.
Overall, the majority of the class (eight) is slated for the defensive side of the ball. There are three linebackers, two defensive backs, one defensive tackle, one defensive end and one defensive end/linebacker hybrid.
But according to Withers, the positions aren’t as important as the overall quality of the players.
“What we thought more than anything else was to find the best athlete and the best football player. We have an objective in finding young men,” he said. “Obviously, toughness is important, whether he’s an offensive guy or a defensive guy. He’s got to have football instincts.”
Six of the recruits are from Virginia. There are two from the central Virginia area, two from the Northern Virginia area and one from the Virginia Beach region. As a new staff, establishing contacts in-state is going to be an ongoing process.
“We want to continue to grow the relationship in the state with this staff and the coaches ... We try to have somewhere around 50 percent of our class from in-state,” Withers said. “And that’ll vary from year-to-year depending on the talent level in this state. We’re not going to take a bad player in the state just to fill a quota.”
The rest of the class includes three players from North Carolina, three from South Carolina, and one each from Florida and New Jersey. Withers has connections to the Carolinas going back to his four years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2008-11. One of those connections helped bring Lee on board.
“We’ll try to get the best players up and down the Eastern seaboard,” Withers said. “Obviously there are some ties to the state of North Carolina — my ties to the state of North Carolina and some other coaches on our staff. But yeah, we want to make sure we do a good job in Virginia first.”
After getting a late start in early January, this year’s recruiting period was obviously very condensed compared to the typical situation. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to really get to know each player. But Withers and his staff made up for that by seeking out the people in each player’s life that have the biggest insight into who they are.
Withers and staff also had names in mind ahead of time and took advantage of those prior connections.
“I think the biggest thing is our coaches did an unbelievable job of digging and finding what we call the ‘champion,’” Withers said. “The ‘champion’ is that person in that kid’s life that is going to help him make that decision.”
The prospects had to possess the balanced academic and athletic qualities that Withers and his staff believe is necessary to succeed in the future. Nine of the recruits have a 3.0 or better GPA.
“We wanted to make sure that we get the best fit for the JMU nation, for this university,” Withers said. “As we went out on the recruiting trail, we wanted to make sure that we bring in young men that fit the culture of this school, the academic integrity of this school. But not only that, that can help us win games and win championships.”
As far as pure athletic ability goes, Withers said no attention was paid to the popular star ratings that rank recruits on overall ability from one to five stars. This class has a few two-star recruits, as determined by the website Rivals.
“I think stars get coaches fired. You go find good football players, no matter what the stars are, you go find good football players,” Withers said. “I don’t know who on our signing class has stars, have no idea. Don’t really care.”
The two players from this class that are already on campus, Lee and Nittolo, are acclimating well to JMU according to Withers. They figure to add an obvious kick to the quarterback competition.
“Our objective is to have competition at every spot on our football team ... We want to make sure we have competition,” Withers said. “Competition, obviously, helps each individual in that competition play better and be better. That means on the field, off the field, because everything’s in play.”
Now that the staff is off the recruiting trail and back in the offices, their main priority shifts to getting to know the current players. But from a purely football perspective, Withers said there’s no starters in place yet at any position.
“I don’t know this team, I can’t tell you who’s starting at left guard,” he said. “All I know right now is we’re competing right now in the offseason to find out who our football players are going to be.”
In addition, Withers is leaving the door open to the possibility of bringing in some other players over the next few months if need be.
“We’re always going to manipulate this roster. If something happens and we’re able to do that, then we’ll always look at it. I think at this level it affords you the opportunity to do that.”
As far as the incoming freshmen Withers said he has no plans on redshirting any of them this season.
“We want to be able to sign guys that can come in here and play,” Withers said. “If they need to redshirt, we probably don’t need to bring them in here.”
Though it’s still very early, the 2014 recruiting class could become a window to see what kind of program JMU will be under Withers.
“It’s a class that’ll be the structure of what we build here at James Madison,” Withers said. “So we’re excited about the 14 young men that are a part of this class.”
Contact Wayne Epps Jr. at email@example.com.