What a difference a year can make.
This time last year, sophomore running back Khalid Abdullah was a relative unknown on JMU’s roster. Then-head coach Mickey Matthews redshirted him, though he showed promise in practice.
Finally, unhappy with the Dukes’ fumbling habit, Matthews took the redshirt off Abdullah in the week before the Sept. 21 game against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Abdullah ran for 62 yards and a touchdown in his first game that Saturday and eventually solidified himself as JMU’s second option behind the starter, Dae’Quan Scott.
This year, with Scott gone, Abdullah enters the season as the new man in charge in the backfield, but he’s not alone. Head coach Everett Withers has options and he plans to use them.
According to Withers, the Dukes’ success in the running game is going to be key to their ability to open up the passing game.
“We’re going to need them all,” Withers said of his running backs. “It’s going to be running back by committee.”
Behind Abdullah, freshman John Miller is emerging as a playmaker. Miller isn’t the biggest at 5 feet 10 inches tall and 175 pounds, but he’s shown speed and the ability to deceive.
He could even find himself returning kicks. Injuries have limited the rest of the running back group, but Withers and redshirt junior starting quarterback Vad Lee are pleased by what they’ve seen from Miller.
“Miller is very impressive,” Lee said. “He can do a lot of things. I think of him as like a LaDainian Tomlinson-type runner. Because he’s very shifty, he’s a small guy. He can make you miss, which is really important about our offense, — making somebody miss.”
Another newcomer, redshirt sophomore Alden Hill, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, is expected to be another bright spot. But he missed most of camp with a shoulder injury, making his return to practice on Aug. 18.
Hill ran for 58 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries in eight games last season after redshirting in 2012. He’s another big back for JMU, standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 220 pounds. Only redshirt senior Jauan Latney (6 feet, 230 pounds) is heavier.
Expected to also contribute in the return game, Hill looks to be an asset in multiple ways.
“Obviously, he’s a bigger body than some of those guys in the running back room,” co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Drew Mehringer said. “[He’s] a kid that wants to do it, so I like his attitude, like his spirit.”
In redshirt senior Dejor Simmons, Withers perhaps has a glimpse of what to expect from Miller in a few years. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound speedster will be used in a variety of ways. He can line up in the backfield, split out wide as a receiver, come back in motion and return kicks.
Simmons was used primarily on kick returns last year, finishing with 586 return yards, including a 100-yard return for a touchdown in a 38-31 win against the University of Richmond on Oct. 12.
Withers said there will be certain plays for Simmons to take advantage of his skillset.
“Anytime we need somebody to make a play, or anytime we need somebody to go in, Dejor is always ready,” Lee said. “He’s a senior, so he’s another guy that really takes his role seriously. I know he comes out of the locker room before every practice and just absorbs everything.”
Latney, who had to recover from a torn Achilles last offseason and only played in the first three games because of a dislocated kneecap during the season, looked solid in JMU’s intrasquad scrimmage two weeks ago. He and redshirt freshman Cardon Johnson, who’s still working back from a torn Achilles suffered in April’s spring game, look to be two more options for JMU at running back.
Up front, a new-look offensive line will try to make the backs’ jobs easier. The line returns just one starter, redshirt senior Matt Williams at center. It lost Josh Wells (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars), A.J. Scott and Scott Jones.
The lineup around Williams is slated to be redshirt senior Nick Appel at left tackle, redshirt senior Austin Lane at left guard, redshirt freshman A.J. Bolden at right guard and redshirt sophomore Mitchell Kirsch at right tackle.
Appel and Boledn are two more transfers: Appel from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bolden from the University of Toledo.
Appel’s relationship with Withers goes back to his freshman year at UNC in 2010, when Withers was the defensive coordinator there before becoming the interim head coach in 2011 and leaving for Ohio State University in 2012.
Appel said Bolden reminds him of himself when he was younger and the two are building a close relationship. But overall, the whole offensive line is developing solid chemistry.
“It really is a brotherhood,” Appel said. “There’s really no cliques or anything like that. We’ve all got each other’s backs. Not even just on the field, off the field, whatever’s going on.”
Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Brad Davis backs that up — and he knows a little something about chemistry — he won a national championship while playing on the offensive line for the University of Oklahoma in 2000.
“This is probably the hardest fall camp they’ve ever gone through, the guys who’ve actually been here,” Davis said. “So they’re pulling for each other, they’re helping each other get through. And really, they’re just starting to hold each other accountable. That’s the cool part, when you as a coach don’t have to go out there and do a bunch of fussin’ and coaching effort, it’s your teammates coaching teammates, then you’re on to something.”
Davis is one of the most vocal coaches out on the practice field. He consistently chirps to his unit throughout practice, especially when mistakes are made. Appel, who met Davis at UNC just before he left his position as a graduate assistant there, said Davis can be a bit aggressive and that, “his juice is always up.”
But players understand all the talk is for a purpose.
“He’s trying to get us ready for what we’re going to face when we’re out there on the field,” Appel said. “Other teams, fans, stuff like that. They’re not going to be, obviously, very nice.”
Right now, the line is still being fine-tuned. Davis said there’s several “little things” that need to be sorted out, including snaps, penalties, footwork, hand placement and pad level. But the depth is there and the unit made it through camp injury free. Davis’ goal is to nail down the best eight to 10 linemen and find roles for them all by the time JMU kicks off at Maryland on Saturday.
With some dangerous athletes elsewhere on offense, and JMU’s emphasis on the running game, the offensive line is going to have to step up right away if the Dukes are going to be effective. And, according to Appel, they’re not far off from being ready to do that.
“We’re right there at the cusp of pushing it over the bar, where we need to be,” he said.
Contact Wayne Epps Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.