jmuvsweberst55.JPG

James Madison quarterback Ben DiNucci (6) and wide receiver Brandon Polk (3) attempt to pump up the crowd in the final minutes of the game.

Five former JMU football players are ready to bring their talents to the big leagues and prove they deserve a spot on their team for the 2020-21 NFL Season. These players have gone to the next step of their football careers, but they all share one thing in common: they’re Dukes.

From the East Coast to the West Coast, these former Dukes are preparing for their journey in the NFL. Wherever that journey takes them, they'll always hold that passion and spirit they have from playing football at JMU.

Ron'Dell Carter (Defensive end, UDFA, Dallas Cowboys)

Carter was a sack and tackle machine for the Dukes. He finished his redshirt senior year with 12 sacks, the third most sacks in a JMU single-season. Carter also finished seventh nationally and second in the CAA in tackles for loss per games with 1.7 that season. These defensive accolades earned him the Phil Steele FCS National Defensive Player of the Year and CAA Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Carter’s impact on the Cowboys defense could bring a sense of depth and the explosive rush he exemplified in college. During the 2019 season, the Cowboys gave up 6.8 passing yards per play and 5.2 total yards per play. Carter can help bring more of a rush to the quarterback, which Dallas struggled with last year. The former Duke will be alongside Dallas veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and recently acquired defensive end Everson Griffen, not only to learn what it takes to play in the NFL but also prove why he should be a Cowboy.

John Daka (Outside linebacker, UDFA, Baltimore Ravens)

Daka was the sack leader for the Dukes his senior year with 16.5, breaking the JMU single-season record. He also had a knack of forcing fumbles, finishing with four and making him the fifth highest in the FCS. Daka made a name for himself on the national stage, finishing first in total sacks and tackles for loss, third for tackles for loss with 1.8 and fifth in sacks per game with 1.03.

During the 2019 season, the Ravens allowed a league-low 36.7 passer rating when pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The addition of a nation-top sacker and tackler in Daka could add more fuel to this fire.

Both Carter and Daka were key pieces to JMU’s defense. Dallas and Baltimore are always viewed by the national media as being relevant to the NFL and potential Super Bowl winners. Baltimore hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since 2013, and Dallas hasn’t since the ’90s, though it’s possible that these two Dukes could be a piece of the pie to help these organizations improve on the defensive side of the football.

Ben DiNucci (Quarterback, 7th round, Dallas Cowboys)

DiNucci was the only former Duke to be drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. He finished with the best completion percentage in the nation with a 70.9 completion rating and second nationally in pass efficiency with a passer rating of 169.5 his redshirt senior year. DiNucci ranked in the top 10 for five all-time records at JMU.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott might be their starting quarterback for years to come, but DiNucci could take the role of backup quarterback as he battles Andy Dalton for that No. 2 quarterback spot in training camp. Dalton is a veteran quarterback with a great deal of experience from his time in Cincinnati, though he’s on life support for his job in the NFL. He didn’t satisfy the Bengals organization enough to keep him around and was released during this past offseason, and they drafted quarterback Joe Burrow out of LSU with the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. DiNucci is unproven but is coming off a great year at JMU and has fresh legs, while Dalton already has a foot out the door of the league.

Brandon Polk (Wide receiver, UDFA, Los Angeles Rams)

Polk only played one season for the Dukes but still put up big numbers, finishing with 1,179 yards his redshirt senior year. He scored 11 touchdowns and ranked 16th nationally in receiving touchdowns. He averaged 15.9 yards a catch and also became the holder of the second most receptions at JMU with 74.

Under the radar, Polk had the second fastest 40-yard dash out of all the players that declared for the 2020 NFL Draft. His recorded time was 4.28 seconds. He was .01 seconds behind the former Alabama and first round pick wide receiver Henry Ruggs III's 40-yard dash time — showing the level of his speed.

Polk isn’t a veteran in the NFL quite yet, but he’s a “college veteran” as he played four years at Penn State and one year at JMU. His ability to stack up yards, the burst in his speed and his experience might just get him a spot on the Rams. Los Angeles’ top wide receivers, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, dealt with the injury bug last year, and there’s always a chance it might bite them again. The Rams organization also parted ways with wide receiver Brandin Cooks through a trade this offseason. He was one of their former key weapons. These events that transpired could open a competition at the wide receiver position that’s up for grabs for Polk.

Dylan Stapleton (Tight end, UDFA, Houston Texans)

Stapleton became a part of JMU’s football program as a junior after he transferred from a Division II college football program at Slippery Rock University. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound tight end had 35 receptions for 426 yards his senior year for the Dukes and was on the Second All-CAA team for tight ends. He showed up on the big stage at the FCS National Championship Game against North Dakota State with six receptions for 66 yards, that being his highest yards total for that season.

The Texans’ tight end talent doesn’t seem to have much talent or depth, as the only big-name tight end they have is Ryan Griffin. Stapleton’s size and length could give him a chance to make an impact on the tight end position in Houston with an advantage over smaller defenders while receiving and blocking.

Even as COVID-19 continues, the NFL is still on schedule with its 2020-21 season. These former JMU players will need to show out even more during training camp because rookies who are drafted in later rounds or undrafted free agents usually get to show their talents on the field during the preseason games too. This year that won’t be a reality because all preseason games were canceled. These former Dukes look to make their roster and make an impact on the field for their team this season.

Contact Andrew Oliveros at oliverab@dukes.jmu.edu. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.