It’s no secret. So far in the fall 2021 season, JMU football’s passing attack is just as deadly as the running game — and the stats back that up.
Following two home victories against Morehead State and Maine, the Dukes have been high-flying through the air. Redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson is 44-for-58 with 677 yards and nine touchdowns in two games. According to the game notes for Saturday’s contest against Weber State, Johnson ranks second nationally in completion percentage, passing touchdowns and passing efficiency.
In other words, Johnson isn’t only throwing the ball but is throwing it accurately and efficiently.
“I rather take a sack than throw up a ball ... where a [defensive back] can get it,” Johnson said. “My focus in the offseason was just eliminating those plays.”
Why the hot start? Where did this come from and why wasn’t JMU this flashy last season?
“I think he came into the fall with a lot of confidence,” Cignetti said. “He’s just taken his game to another level, and I think we’re putting him in some pretty good positions too.”
Johnson isn’t only playing confidently, but Cignetti said he’s training and playing smart. The quarterback is throwing the ball away and getting out of bad situations.
Johnson said working with quarterbacks coach Tino Sunseri has taken his game to the next level.
“I feel so great [and] so prepared each week,” Johnson said. “Coach Sunseri has me so locked in [and] ready to play every week, I go out there and it feels as if it’s almost practice.”
Of course, putting up passing numbers the way JMU is isn’t just courtesy of the quarterback. It’s also the receivers Johnson’s throwing to, as well.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. was Johnson’s primary deep-ball threat in games one and two. Receivers redshirt junior Kris Thornton and redshirt senior Scott Bracey work the right side of the field, and the dual-threat gives Johnson options both short and long.
“You kind of got to be ready for the ball,” Bracey said. “That’s something we’re working [on] every day in practice, just expecting the ball — like, whatever the play call may be.”
In the spring season, the Dukes’ offense survived around the running game. Wells Jr. was in his first season, and Johnson earned the starting job over former JMU quarterback Gage Moloney. The chemistry wasn’t built yet, and the receiving core was young compared to the experienced running back room.
This season, Wells Jr. and Johnson said they spent the summer continuing the connection built in the spring. Wells Jr.’s two touchdown grabs for 73 and 51 yards, respectively, back up that chemistry.
“I think [Wells Jr.] is a guy more driven and motivated more than any receiver I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “I have so much trust in him. He puts in the work and he’s going to go out there and play his best.”
Wells Jr. isn’t shy to complement Johnson and his throwing ability either. He said postgame after playing Maine that it takes focus but he trusts that Johnson will put the ball exactly where it needs to be and that accuracy is the key to catching the deep ball.
“It’s focus,” Wells Jr. said. “You got to stay focused. I already [know] that it’s going to be there.”
When JMU’s passing game is working strong and moving efficiently, it works on the same level as the running back core. The Dukes have a tough test this weekend against Weber State on the road, but with both offensive schemes working fluently, JMU football is in good shape down the stretch.
“An emphasis we made in the offseason is not to really have mercy on anybody,” Johnson said. “Just play our game throughout the entire first half and second half. I think we see what happens when we’re up 21 points.”
Contact Savannah Reger at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.