FRISCO, Texas — At the beginning of the 2019 season, JMU football quickly earned merit for its depth at the running back position. That’s largely due to the new coaching staff and the style of play head coach Curt Cignetti has brought, but each back brings a different skill set that has attributed to the 10th-ranked rushing offense in the FCS.
They’ve put up over 100 yards in every contest, over 200 on seven different occasions and over 300 in four games. Even redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci has joined in on the rush success, gaining 721 yards and adding seven touchdowns.
For the deep running back position, the wealth has been spread. Redshirt juniors Jawon Hamilton and Eric Kirlew, junior Percy Agyei-Obese, redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse and freshmen Austin Douglas and Latrele Palmer each saw action in the first four weeks of the season. Every one of them scored either a rushing or receiving touchdown, which made it difficult for opposing defenses to make sure every area of the field was covered.
But only one back has broken the 1,000-yard mark: Agyei-Obese. The Frederick, Maryland, native, has seen significant playing time in his primary position for the first time since arriving at JMU and has made the most of the opportunity given to him.
Through 15 games, Agyei-Obese boasts 1,143 rushing yards on 4.7 yards per attempt and 19 touchdowns. He’s had seven multi-touchdown games, including a season-high three scores against New Hampshire. As a sophomore, he only received 18 carries but managed to average 9.3 yards per attempt. His big frame and leg strength have helped him become a powerful tailback and an asset in the backfield.
“That was one of my goals at the beginning of the season, to have 1,000 yards this year,” Agyei-Obese said. “I was working hard throughout the whole season trying to accomplish that goal.”
Along with Agyei-Obese, Hamilton is the next running back who’s close to eclipsing 1,000 yards. The UCF transfer needs 87 yards to join Agyei-Obese and has also added six total touchdowns.
One of the reasons why the JMU backs have found success this season is how well the offensive line has played. Every starting O-Lineman is a junior or older, and with the offensive line being one of the most important areas of the team, having experience pays dividends in intense situations.
“Those are my guys,” Agyei-Obese said. “Those guys up front, honestly, are unbelievable. All they do is work hard. They work hard at practice, they work hard every game. They’re always there when I’m tackled, helping me up and always like, ‘Next play, Percy. We’ve got your back.’ The trust there is unbelievable.”
For Agyei-Obese, his rise to a breakout season took off in the summer.
He worked alongside DiNucci when the team was in Harrisonburg during summer break, which turned into the both of them helping each other improve before the regular season began. Now, both of them are utilizing the lessons learned, which is evident in their respective successful seasons.
“He’s done a heck of a job this offseason in terms of trying to pick my brain,” DiNucci said. “We stayed after [practice] multiple times trying to work on his hands, routes, footwork, stuff like that.”
Agyei-Obese’s footwork drastically improved, leading him to become a solid option for offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery to call plays for. It’ll be important for them to be able to establish the ground game in the Dukes’ contest with NDSU.
Agyei-Obese emphasized how much his teammates and coaches played a role in his development over the past three years. For him and the other running backs, it’s about feeding off each other’s success.
“We complement off of each other a lot, and every running back in the group, we’re all tight,” Agyei-Obese said. “If someone’s on the field, we’re all on the sideline hyping them up and cheering them on. There’s been many times where I’ve been on the field and I’m gassed, I’m tired, and I’ll look over to the sideline and Jawon is going crazy … That’s just given me motivation in itself.”
Both DiNucci and Cignetti say that Agyei-Obese is deceptive. His size implies he may lack speed, but quickness has been one of the reasons he’s been able to break away for large gains this season.
However, his strength is the reason he’s been able to make critical short-yard gains. DiNucci mentioned he’s seen Agyei-Obese take on up to three or four players before being taken down. Having the strength to attack the opposing defensive line and linebackers plays a major role in the success of running backs.
“He’s done a nice job of breaking tackles and, obviously, he’s scored a lot of touchdowns for us,” Cignetti said. “He’s run very consistently. He runs bigger than his size.”
Agyei-Obese has been to Frisco once already, but for him, this year is different. He’ll have the chance to be a game-changer. If JMU wins, it’ll be the first championship he’s won in his football career — a feeling he can’t even dream about.
“I’m speechless about it,” Agyei-Obese said.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.