A former quarterback at West Virginia University and quarterbacks coach for 17 years at Rice, Temple, Pittsburgh and NC State, new JMU head football coach Curt Cignetti has a clear vision for the type of individual he wants running his offense under center for the Dukes.
“I’m looking for a football junkie that loves ball,” Cignetti said. “[A guy] that kind of buys into the philosophy of the offense and the coaching staff, someone that understands what’s important in terms of winning football games, which is A: distributing the ball and B: protecting the ball.”
Protecting the ball was an issue for the 2018 JMU offense, a unit that turned the ball over 24 times off 15 interceptions and nine fumbles. Only 19 of the 124 FCS programs finished the year with more turnovers.
“Turnovers will kill you,” Cignetti said. “Before you win a football game you need to make sure you don’t lose a football game, and the quickest way to lose a football game is to turn the ball over.”
JMU enters the offseason with three returning quarterbacks who saw playing time throughout the 2018 season: 13-game starter redshirt junior Ben DiNucci, junior Cole Johnson and redshirt freshman and South Carolina’s 2016 Mr. Football Gage Moloney. All three bring different characteristics to the field and personalities off it, but the quarterback who impresses Cignetti the most off the field might just get his shot on it.
“We’re looking for a guy that has the intangibles that is a leader,” Cignetti said. “You know what a leader is? That’s a guy that is bought in and invested. Like a coach.”
When speaking on what he needs from a quarterback, Cignetti had high praise for his former signal caller at Elon, sophomore Davis Cheek. The JMU bunch will be held in comparison to Cheek’s characteristics and mannerisms when battling it out for the starting job.
“That guy is in the office every day watching tape, he is all in, 100 percent, and he’s saying the right things to the players and he’s making the locker room better,” Cignetti said. “You can trust him with the football, and he’s working every day to be the best he can be.”
Once he’s got the right man running the offense, the rest of the unit will pride itself on winning the time of possession battle and being the best rushing team in the conference. In Cignetti’s first year at Elon, the Phoenix had the CAA’s fourth-best rushing attack at nearly 165 rushing yards a game. In 2018, before losing its all-conference running back in senior Malcolm Summers halfway through the year, the Phoenix were No. 1 in the CAA.
JMU, comparatively, finished first in 2017 with 194.3 yards per game and fourth in 2018 with 183.3 yards per game. Restoring order in the trenches will be the focal point in rejuvenating the 2019 offense.
“I want to be able to run the ball. We will be able to run the ball,” Cignetti said. “We will lead the conference in rushing. We will be a tough, physical, nasty football team running the football.”
One obstacle for Cignetti, looking ahead to the 2019 season, is the level of talent lost in the 2018 graduating class. Graduate student Cardon Johnson and seniors Trai Sharp and Marcus Marshall finished their careers with a combined 6,040 rushing yards, 738 receiving yards and 64 total touchdowns.
With the three out the door, the Dukes have just sophomore Percy Agyei-Obese, redshirt sophomores Jawon Hamilton and Eric Kirlew and freshman Solomon Vanhorse. Agyei-Obese leads the remaining backs with 66 rush attempts, 441 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The other three have a combined 17 attempts and 100 rushing yards.
Looking at the 2019 recruiting class, three-star CJ Jackson from Hermitage High School in Henrico, Virginia, has verbally committed to the Dukes, and late Sunday night Tahshawn Brinson, a three-star recruit and verbal commit to Stony Brook, received an offer from Cignetti and the Dukes. Adding in some recruits on scholarship will bolster a positional need for Cignetti’s offense.
While the Dukes are young at running back, they’ll return 20 of 22 starters from 2018. Having an experienced JMU team will help Cignetti in his early stages at James Madison and get the ball rolling as soon as the team gets back to campus.
“There’s an advantage to that,” JMU Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne said. “He’s not talking about radical change, he’s talking about minor adjustments. I think the fact that they’re already together and that strong of a unit, will really help [Cignetti].”
The 2019 season is 257 days away, but JMU has officially begun the process of returning to its championship form. With Cignetti at the helm, the right quarterback in place and a strong run scheme with depth at the position, the Dukes will have a shot to return to their 2016 form — winning games with a top offense in the FCS.
Contact Blake Pace at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.