JMU football is back for its spring season. For fans, it’s a chance to get a taste of what next season will be like. For head coach Curt Cignetti, it’s the start of a long transition.
Cignetti was hired in December after former head coach Mike Houston left the program to become the head coach at East Carolina University. When Cignetti arrived in Harrisonburg, he began recruiting and maintaining a highly regarded signing class. Now that spring practices are underway, the on-field transition has begun.
So far, Cignetti’s practices are upbeat and intense, but there are still a lot of growing pains that come with a new coach. Players must learn new signs and plays and still have to get to know the coaches to build chemistry.
The players and coaches know the chemistry isn’t a finished product, but spring practice is meant to mold the team and prepare it for the upcoming season — one that holds national championship expectations.
“We’re just kind of establishing our brand of ball and the way we do things,” Cignetti said. “I think the guys have really picked up on it and have done a good job. We’re practicing with good tempo every day, we’re putting in new plays on offense, defense and special teams. Our big thing is that we just want to play one play at a time.”
The one-play-at-a-time mentality is necessary for a team that’ll experience different learning curves in terms of how fast they adapt to the new playbooks. Not every player is going to immediately learn the new playbooks brought by new coaches, but each player is adjusting with every practice.
“It’s a process,” redshirt junior safety D’Angelo Amos said. “We’re not going to know too much right off the bat … Being on the field with the coaches with spring ball, I feel like that kind of builds that up — seeing how they communicate with you and how they work with you, especially in the meetings.”
Amos noted that the team is moving faster both on the field and in meetings. He also said the team is enjoying the fast-paced style Cignetti brings to the program.
Although the team enjoys Cignetti’s style, there are still difficulties that come with a coaching change. According to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kyndel Dean, one of the main hurdles the team has to get past is letting go of the previous style of play.
“The hardest thing about learning a new offense is giving up the old offense,” Dean said. “We’ve got to give up the things we knew, learn new techniques, new rules, and we’ve got to break down this new offense and learn everything about it so we can play faster.”
The coaches can be good on the football side of things, but for Dean, it’s important for the team to get close with coaches on a personal level. That way, the players can communicate with them better and learn faster.
“I think the relationship is going to build as the season goes, as we go through struggles,” Amos said. “When we struggle, people break apart. So, at that point, that’s when we need to stick together and stay strong as a team.”
Cignetti comes into JMU with expectations of championships, but for him, it’s nothing new. The former West Virginia University quarterback was on staff at the University of Alabama from 2007-2010, where in 2009, the team went 14-0 and won the BCS National Championship.
In the past three years, the Dukes have made two FCS National Championship appearances — winning and losing one — but are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Colgate in the second round of the 2018 FCS playoffs.
This year, with lots of returning starters and a class of freshmen that are looking to make an immediate impact, JMU is ready to get back to competing for more trophies to add to its collection.
“I see a lot of young players developing and getting better,” Cignetti said. “We’re walking off of the field a better team.
While spring practices are in full swing, fans will have to wait until April 13 to see actual game play when JMU hosts its annual Spring Game. Until then, the team continues its journey to the 2019 season.
“It’s a process,” Cignetti said. “It’s all about getting 11 guys that do their job, and when that happens, it’s not addition, it’s multiplication.”
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.