Jawon Hamilton

Jawon Hamilton celebrating after the first touchdown of the day against Richmond.

Practice doesn’t make perfect — perfect practice makes perfect.

JMU football is a work in progress. Every team that goes through a coaching change experiences the growing pains of learning the new coach’s style, but for the Dukes, the winning culture established by years of playoff appearances makes the process easier.

Throughout spring practice, coaches and players have harped on the fact that nothing is perfect. Head coach Curt Cignetti holds a firm belief that every aspect of the team can get better, no matter how well it plays. The Spring Game provides the chance for the team to get better as a whole.

As the first phase of the 2019 season nears its end, the next step is in the hands of the players. For some, that means doing workouts and maintaining fitness while away from JMU. For those who are injured, it’s continuing to rehabilitate and prepare for when Aug. 31 rolls around. However, those are all steps a team takes when entering a new season.

“I don’t expect us to be [at our best] right now,” Cignetti said. “It’s a process. We’ve got a long way to go. I think we’re making progress in that area.”

One of the players getting back to full strength is rising redshirt junior running back Jawon Hamilton. In 2018, Hamilton served as the Dukes’ primary kick return specialist. He amassed an average of 27.8 yards per return and scored a touchdown, earning him a spot as a Third Team All-CAA kick returner.

This season is different for the University of Central Florida transfer. With running backs Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp graduating, the opportunity is there for Hamilton to step into a bigger role. He says he feels good playing and that the team has come a long way since the start of spring practices.

“From day one, everything was moving kind of fast, but that was because we weren’t used to the system,” Hamilton said. “Other than that, I think we’re competing each and every day and making each other better. With a great supporting staff like Coach Cignetti and [running backs] coach Matt Merritt and everyone else, we just come out and take what they want to see us do and apply it to our game.”

Both sides of the ball are dealing with injuries as the Spring Game approaches. Most notably on the defensive side, rising redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter and rising junior defensive lineman Mike Green have been sidelined to help them physically prepare for the season.

Cignetti said having key players unavailable during the spring is nothing new, but it opens the door for other players to showcase their talents and earn playing time in the fall. One person who has caught the new coach’s eye is rising redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse who has shown speed and eagerness every play.

The Spring Game gives players the chance to display their talents to fans and coaches in real game scenarios. It doesn’t use the same rules as a normal contest, but each player will be vying to either cement their place as a starter or move up the depth chart.

“I’ll be interested to see how the guys play,” Cignetti said. “We’ll have some depth issues. Hopefully, we can get a couple guys back, but it’s typical spring football practice. When you have that many guys that have surgery in the postseason and you lose a few during practice, your numbers are going to be finite.”

Rising redshirt senior linebacker Mike Cobbs sees the importance of the Spring Game as giving him another chance at leaving a lasting impression on the coaches before summer practices begin. While he says the early mornings have been tough, knowing that every practice brings improvement is enough motivation to finish spring strong.

“This is our last opportunity to show everything that we know and show everything that we’ve improved on,” Cobbs said. “Just to cap off a long, hard, physical spring ball, is really kind of relieving at the end, but just knowing we’re going to go out here in the spring game and give everything we have.”

It’s been a tough road physically for the Dukes, but it’s been just as difficult mentally. Last season’s loss to Colgate in the second round of the FCS Playoffs still resonates in the players’ minds, but that heartbreak can turn into motivation for the future.

“I’m pretty sure anybody on this team will tell you we always think about that Colgate game and how tough it was to lose that,” Hamilton said. “If we that in the back of our head and use that to push us throughout practice to better us as a team.”

With this year’s team returning starters in every position besides cornerback, the growth from a setback will help in this year’s journey back to Frisco, Texas. JMU won’t live in the past, but it’ll use it to help the team prepare for what comes at them in the future. Finally being able to play a close replica of a game come Saturday will help the process of getting back to the standard JMU football is used to.

The annual Spring Game gives athletes opportunities to show what they’re made of. With a new coaching staff, every player has a clean slate — nothing is set in place. Every position is looked at and every player is evaluated to determine if they fit the system that hopes to bring the Dukes their third national championship.

“The best guys play,” Cignetti said. “You’ve got to produce in practice. There’s no entitlement, you’ve got to earn it. Everything’s got to be earned, not given. That’s how you create a good culture.”

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

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.