Cignetti interview

Curt Cignetti sits down for a one on one interview after the press conference on Monday.

With JMU football head coach Curt Cignetti officially filling out his entire coaching staff, fans of the Dukes have a rough estimate of what the team will look like from top to bottom in 2019. James Madison administration has been adamant throughout the entire hiring process that this new regime won’t be a rebuilding period, more so a reloading period. Between the coaching staff hires, the list of eight early-signing recruits and number of current players still on board point to another year in which the Dukes are battling for the CAA title and national championship relevancy.

While the coaching additions and player retention alone were enough to keep the Dukes poised for years of contention, it also took away the strengths from JMU’s toughest in-conference foes. The CAA was the most competitive conference at the FCS level, as evidenced by an NCAA-high six representatives in the 2018 playoffs. But with seven coaches from around the CAA joining the Dukes this offseason, the purple and gold should rise again as the clear-cut favorite to take home the conference belt.

It all starts at the top, where JMU officially hired Cignetti after prying him away from a rising Elon program. In his two seasons with the Phoenix, Cignetti boasted a 14-9 record with two trips to the postseason. Even more shockingly, Cignetti’s 2018 group was the first CAA team to knock off the Dukes in over 1,000 days and 20 games.

Cignetti turned Elon into a physical, hard-nosed team on both sides of the ball that dominated in the run game. The Phoenix had the No. 1 rushing offense in the CAA before star senior running back Malcolm Summers went down with an injury, yet they still finished the season running for 188.7 yards per game. In just two short years, Cignetti made Elon’s offense hum and — despite several key players missing games to injury — could’ve been the best team in the CAA last season.

It wasn’t just Cignetti who the Dukes took away from Elon, as offensive assistant coaches Matt Merritt, Mike Shanahan and Damian Wroblewski joined him in Harrisonburg. With a majority of Elon’s offensive staff now with James Madison, the Dukes not only have a staff with a winning scheme and identity, but took that same identity and coaching talent away from the Phoenix.

Just as JMU swooned coaches from one of the CAA’s best offenses, it also brought in the coaching staff from the CAA’s best defense in 2018. Maine, the winners of the CAA last season, had the top defense in the conference — allowing 79.2 rushing yards per game (best in the FCS) and 2.4 yards per rush, while also forcing a conference-high 18 interceptions and 47 sacks. Priding themselves with turnovers and limiting the running game, the Black Bears made it all the way to the national semifinals before falling to Eastern Washington.

The Dukes can’t be credited with the departure of Maine head coach Joe Harasymiak, but they were more than happy to hire Maine’s defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman for the same position. Hetherman, in turn, was joined by assistant coach Matt Birkett, who served as the defensive backs coach last year.

Other assistant coaches have had small stints within the CAA, but none as prolific and successful as the four from Elon and two from Maine. JMU isn’t ready to surrender the CAA title for the second year in a row, and it doesn’t hurt either that some of its top competitors will spend the offseason licking their wounds.

Contact Blake Pace at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.