It’s hard to believe, but JMU football is already 50% done with its season. Through six games, the Dukes stand at 5-1, with their only loss coming to West Virginia in Week 1. With six games and a bye week during Week 10, it’s time to grade how head coach Curt Cignetti’s squad has fared so far in 2019.
Quarterback/offensive line: A
Before this season, redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci needed to improve following an inconsistent 2018 campaign. In 13 games last season, the Pitt transfer tossed 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions but also added nine touchdowns on the ground.
When DiNucci turned the ball over on each of the first two possessions against New Hampshire last season, then-head coach Mike Houston benched him in favor of redshirt junior quarterback Cole Johnson. Johnson never became the starter, but following DiNucci’s five-interception performance against Colgate in the second round of the 2018 FCS playoffs, another quarterback battle was on the table.
DiNucci won the job before the 2019 season began and has shown signs of improvement. Against West Virginia, he threw a costly fourth-quarter interception but didn’t turn the ball over for the next four games until a miscommunication caused a fumble against Stony Brook.
Sitting at first in the CAA in pass efficiency (175) and completion percentage (72.4) and fourth in total offense (262) and passing yards per game (214), DiNucci has gone from trying to make big-time plays to being the field general Cignetti’s offense needs. What allows this isn’t only his ability to throw; his legs give him the opportunity to escape the pocket and extend plays. Last season, DiNucci often extended plays that ended in turnovers. Now, the Wexford, Pennsylvania, native creates more chances to move down the field.
A key factor that allows DiNucci to break free is an offensive line that gives him plenty of time to make decisions. The stout O-Line’s prowess also opens the door for the Dukes’ running backs, who have been the brightest aspect of JMU’s offense this season.
Running backs: A
Not every team has one solid running back. Having two capable running backs would be enough for most teams.
JMU has five.
Redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse, junior Percy Agyei-Obese and redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton have split the majority of carries this season, but freshmen Austin Douglas and Latrele Palmer have also been utilized in various games and showed immense potential.
Douglas and Palmer will possibly be redshirted to retain a year of eligibility, but Cignetti has said numerous times that he’ll burn the redshirt if it helps his team win games. Palmer averages 8.1 yards per carry and has scored two touchdowns in three appearances, and Douglas has a receiving touchdown to his name.
Hamilton, Vanhorse and Agyei-Obese have four, five and six rushing touchdowns, respectively. They each average at least 53 yards per game, and the rush attack as a whole puts up 268.2 yards per game, good for sixth in the FCS.
JMU hasn’t lost in the rushing category so far this season. With multiple backs providing different skill sets and an offensive line that creates gaps for the RBs to utilize, it’s hard to argue this isn’t the best part of the Dukes’ team through six games.
Wide receivers: C+
With a running back core that continuously produces game-changing plays, it’s hard to shift away from that and focus on the passing. However, offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery seems to know what to call and when in order for the receivers to create big opportunities.
Since the return of redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton, the deep ball has been brought out in certain moments. Stapleton’s 6-foot-5-inch frame is lethal for 10- to 15-yard routes, opening the door for Polk or redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kyndel Dean to break open for large gains. In the second quarter against Stony Brook, DiNucci connected with redshirt senior Brandon Polk for a 54-yard gain. Polk went on to score ahead of a career-high 105-yard performance.
Polk has been the biggest weapon for JMU. His speed has caught secondaries off guard and can change the momentum of games in an instant. With 73 yards per game — 43.5 more than the next highest receiver — and three touchdowns total, the Penn State transfer has given the Dukes a deep-ball threat.
The receivers could be better, though. In each game, receivers have dropped passes that hit them in the hands. Against Stony Brook, DiNucci nearly went 2-for-2 on long passes, but because it was dropped, a drive was stifled. Polk’s 105 yards against SBU was the only time a JMU receiver posted over 100 yards this season. That being said, the Dukes have spread the wealth in most of their games, making it difficult for one player to have a big game yards wise.
There are multiple assets to the offense that allow it to succeed, but a lethal running game is hard to match with an aggressive aerial attack. As CAA play ramps up, the chance of the air attack increasing in production could go up.
Defensive line/linebackers: A
Every game, the JMU defensive line and its linebackers find themselves in the opponent’s backfield. Redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway has been involved in 50 tackles and has two fumble recoveries, while redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter has made seven tackles for loss and six quarterback hits. Senior defensive lineman John Daka also has a team-high 3.5 sacks for a total of 28 yards.
The Dukes’ defensive front minimizes opponents’ running games. It’s third in the FCS in rushing defense, allowing 71.2 yards per game. With a 10th best scoring defense in the country that gives up just 16.8 points per game, a successful defense starts in the front and is supported by a strong linebacker group.
The secondary is the biggest concern for the Dukes through six games. Against Stony Brook, it gave up 318 yards through the air — a season-high. It gave up a long touchdown on the second play of the game versus Elon and in Week 1’s loss to West Virginia, the Mountaineers scored a game-sealing touchdown because of broken coverage.
There are a couple of reasons why the defensive backs haven’t been at top form. Former standout corner Jimmy Moreland is now with the Washington Redskins and redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson is dealing with an injury that’s seen him have limited playing time. Losing two top players in the secondary means younger athletes will be called on, but it takes time for them to adjust to the physicality of CAA football.
Despite its struggles, the secondary has playmakers. Robinson, redshirt junior safety D’Angelo Amos, redshirt freshman safety Que Reid and senior safety Adam Smith each have one interception. If Robinson can get back to the field and remain healthy throughout the rest of the season, the JMU pass defense should be able to tighten up.
Special teams: B
Outside of a reappearing struggle to hold onto punts and kicks, the Dukes’ special teams unit has been a facet JMU can rely on. Redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke is 10-for-13 on the year, with one miss being from beyond 50 yards. The Mechanicsville, Virginia, native is perfect on PATs so far.
Junior punter Harry O’Kelly is third in the CAA in punting with an average of 42.2 yards per punt. His rugby style of play also gives Cignetti the ability to call a fake-punt, allowing the Australian to take off and run for a hopeful first down — something he’s done in the past. It hasn’t been done yet this season, but if history shows, it might be used in the final six regular-season games.
At 5-1 (2-0 CAA), JMU football has shown many strengths but also a few weaknesses. If each category was a three-credit course, JMU’s semester GPA calculator says the Dukes boast a 3.167 GPA. As an important contest with Villanova on Saturday approaches, JMU will hope to see its strengths knock off an undefeated Wildcats squad.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.