FRISCO, Texas — When JMU football head coach Curt Cignetti sat down with redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk before he committed to the Dukes, the new head coach laid out his plan for the team in step-by-step detail.
He told the Ashburn, Virginia, native that the coaches were going to look after the players. As long as they were willing to buy into the Dukes’ system, the trust among the team was going to increase, and the trajectory of the team would go from there.
The connection started with Polk growing up just under two hours from campus, but what opened the door for him to play for the Dukes was defensive tackles coach Andrew Jackson and safeties coach Ryan Smith. Both were graduate assistants for the Nittany Lions while Polk was at Penn State, so they were tasked with bringing the speedy receiver to Harrisonburg. Being a northern Virginia native searching for more playing time, Polk became an important player for Cignetti and his coaching staff to get.
When Polk made his official visit, the coaches paired him with redshirt junior safety Wayne Davis and redshirt junior wide receiver Jawon Hamilton — both transfers from Ohio State and the University of Central Florida, respectively. Because the two players left their original schools, the staff thought it’d be good for Polk to see how other transfers fared at JMU.
There are many college football players who are promised a certain amount of playing time and style of coaching — but ultimately, those promises are often left unfulfilled. Polk wanted to make sure that wasn’t going to happen if he was going to commit to the Dukes.
“I said to them, ‘Look, how are the coaches, how are they like? Is what they’re telling me what they’re actually doing,’” Polk said. “They said, ‘Look, Cig, what he tells you is exactly what he’s gonna do.’ I remember meeting with Cig and talking to him … He was telling me how things were going to go, and I think everything’s been spot on.”
As JMU prepares for its third national championship game in four years, everything’s gone to Cignetti’s meticulous plan to elevate the Dukes to a higher level of play. The final piece is winning the title, cementing the JMU’s status in the highest tier of FCS football.
Soon after Polk arrived in the Friendly City, he was embraced by his new teammates and got to work alongside the group of wide receivers. It didn’t start smoothly; the newcomer needed time to learn a new offensive scheme and engulf himself in another playbook. But his work ethic and willingness to learn played a key role in his orientation into the team.
“One of the first things I noticed when I first met Brandon was his drive and want to get better,” redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton said. “When he first got here, he was a great kid, extremely humble, worked his tail off, and that was one of the things that jumped out to me.”
Stapleton serves as a tall threat who can use his height to make plays in the end zone, but Polk’s arrival added a lethal, speedy athlete that shifted opposing team’s focus away from the Indiana, Pennsylvania, native.
One of the other beneficiaries of Polk’s addition is redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci, another transfer on the Dukes’ roster. DiNucci, however, came from one of Penn State’s rivals: Pittsburgh.
Polk said DiNucci was one of the first players to reach out and connect with him. DiNucci said the Penn State-Pitt rivalry was a topic that broke the ice between the two, eventually leading to the creation of one of the deadliest duos in the country.
“From that first day I got to throw to him in the summer, you could just see the speed he had was very unusual for this level, and he was going to be an asset for this offense.”
DiNucci also told Polk to not hesitate to ask any questions. Being a transfer himself, he knew what it took to acclimate to a new environment, especially one with high standards like JMU. Luckily for DiNucci, Polk adjusted to his new team quickly and became a primary target for the Dukes’ aerial attack.
In just one season, Polk has established himself as one of the best wide receivers in recent JMU history. In the 2019 season, he’s built a resume of 1,173 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns, Second Team All-CAA honors and scored in nine consecutive games before the semifinal game against Weber State.
In a short time, Polk has been the deciding factor in many of JMU’s wins this season. During a close victory over Stony Brook, he reeled in a 12-yard grab to break a 21-21 deadlock. When JMU trailed Villanova 24-17, it was his 26-yard touchdown that leveled the score. He’s had receptions of 50 yards or more in four different games and is second in JMU’s single-season record for receiving yards, receptions and receiving scores — behind David McLeod, Earnest Payton and Macey Brooks, respectively.
“I’ve said it all year, he’s the weapon that we didn’t have last year,” DiNucci said. “[He has] that over-the-top speed that can really break a defense on a few of those big plays. He’s done a heck of a job all year in terms of using that speed and creating some things for us as an offense.”
Polk’s addition has been vital in the Dukes’ season so far. At 14-1, his absence would completely change how JMU’s offense would operate. His collegiate career started with games at famous places like Beaver Stadium, Ohio Stadium and the Big House. Now, it’ll end at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
And it’s the most important game of his career.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.