Football Field

The new surface at Bridgeforth Stadium features new markings in the endzones and at midfield. 

Quarterback Billy Atkins can’t make visits to schools vying for his commitment, but he made the most of it when he drove to see JMU’s campus with his own eyes. That’s when he decided to verbally pledge to join the Dukes’ football program, becoming the first skill position player to commit in the high school class of 2021. 

While he had planned to visit in April, the ongoing pandemic halted recruiting across the nation. The NCAA’s recruiting dead period for on-campus and in-person visits will last until at least June 30, but that doesn’t mean players can’t travel to schools to get a feel for the campus — all while adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

For Atkins, the visit was key to giving JMU the edge in his recruitment, fending off schools like Buffalo, Delaware and Monmouth in a close race. The Baltimore native is relieved to wrap up his recruitment process and is excited to finish his high school career. 

“It feels really good. It’s definitely stressful,” Atkins said. “It feels good now because I can enjoy senior year and have fun with it all.”

Offensive line and assistant head coach Damian Wroblewski began the contact between JMU and Atkins, and after a few weeks, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shane Montgomery stepped in to further paint the potential future of Atkins at JMU. Montgomery’s experience with high-profile quarterbacks gave Atkins reassurance that he’d be in the right hands to develop into a professional-ready player. 

“He’s definitely known for being a great coach,” Atkins said. “He’s coached guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers, so he’s definitely known for taking guys with talent and making them the best quarterback possible. He did that with Ben DiNucci just last year.”

DiNucci, who spent two seasons with the Dukes after transferring from Pittsburgh, took JMU to its third FCS National Championship game this past season. He was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2020 NFL Draft. 

The competition JMU faces on a year in, year out basis helps build its brand of being a top program nationally. Always finding themselves near the top of the FCS rankings, the Dukes are starting to draw attention from prospects that are receiving interest from FBS schools. 

The CAA improving each year and sending players to the professional level also rings in players’ minds, showing that the path is there for FCS players to get to the NFL — most notably with former North Dakota State and current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who was chosen second overall in 2016. 

High-level competition, notoriety and proximity to home were crucial factors in Atkins’ choice to commit to JMU. He faces nationally-known programs at the high school level at Mount St. Joseph (Baltimore) and wants to continue that strength of competition at the college level.

“First thing is, JMU is closer to home, so that was nice,” Atkins said. “They’re definitely known for being a great program for getting championships every year. Me personally, I play in a great conference on the high school level, and I enjoy playing against top-tier guys every week. I feel like going to JMU, I can compete for championships and try to win one every year.”

Once the NCAA’s recruiting dead period is lifted, Atkins plans on only visiting JMU. While he’s seen the campus through his car window, he said he’s eager to walk on campus and get the feel of the Harrisonburg area.

While fans have to wait another year to see him at Bridgeforth Stadium, he models his game off Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, saying he was fascinated by his play while at Louisville and liked his commitment and toughness every Saturday. 

However, despite still being more than a year away from arriving to Harrisonburg, Atkins’ aspirations are clear: He’s going to come in and do what he can to earn the job out of the gate, and until then, he’s going to work to put himself in the best position possible to be ready once the 2021 football season comes.

“[Montgomery] said it’s basically an open job for whoever to win it,” Atkins said. “As I come in, I’ll do my job, watch my film, the whole nine. I’ll come in prepared, ready to compete.”

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.