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James Madison running back Latrele Palmer carries the ball down the field during the game against Morehead State.

 It’s one of the biggest problems that faces JMU head coach Curt Cignetti.

Since his arrival, JMU football has had the luxury of a deep running back room. The issue that plagues Cignetti — one that every coach wishes they worried about — is giving his top four running backs a fair amount of carries given their talent levels.

Running backs redshirt senior Jawon Hamilton, senior Percy Agyei-Obese, redshirt sophomore Solomon Vanhorse and sophomore Latrele Palmer each made various impacts in the 2019 season and began this year’s spring campaign by once again displaying the firepower the Dukes’ backfield carries.

All four backs could be argued as the best in the FCS, but what makes the JMU running back room even more lethal is the fact that each gives the Dukes a unique skill set that expands the offense’s ability to move down the field. That notion was made clear in JMU’s 52-0 win over Morehead State, one where the Dukes outran the Eagles 369 to minus six.  

Percy Agyei-Obese: Strength and deceptive speed

Agyei-Obese presents a “Jack-of-all-trades” dynamic. The Frederick, Maryland, native checks in at 6 feet tall and 204 pounds and can absorb big hits and gain a few extra yards after contact. However, even with a big frame, Agyei-Obese routinely displays his speed when he breaks off for large chunks of yards.

Against Morehead State, he finished with 116 yards on 13 carries and one touchdown. On top of the lone score, Agyei-Obese had a 55-yard gain that flipped the field and ultimately led to Hamilton running it in from six yards.

Here, Agyei-Obese is patient as his offensive line opens up the gaps. He uses his vision to spot the seam, and his acceleration allows him to break the initial line of defense and evade multiple defenders, allowing him to burst into the open field and get into the Morehead State red zone.

While he didn’t score on that possession, he was able to find the end zone soon after. On first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Agyei-Obese rumbles his way through the line and takes a few hits before falling in for six.

“I’ve been trying to work on, like, my hips and my mobility and things I feel like are my weaknesses, like my hands,” Agyei-Obese said. “I looked at all my mistakes last year. I left multiple yards on the field … and being able to progress is my goal.”

Agyei-Obese ran for over 100 yards on five occasions in 2019-20, earning him 1,216 yards and 19 touchdowns when the season concluded. His multifaceted ability makes it frustrating for opposing defenders to gameplan for, but Agyei-Obese’s consistency in gaining positive yards forces defenses to adjust and gives offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery the ability to open the playbook and take shots down the field.

Jawon Hamilton: Quick change of direction and veteran leadership

Hamilton scored JMU’s first touchdown in over a year as he ran for 68 yards and two touchdowns against Morehead State. He and Agyei-Obese were the one-two punch the Dukes had last season as the two combined for 2,135 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns.

But before Hamilton came to Harrisonburg, he was at Central Florida for two seasons. He was on the 2017 team that went 13-0 and won the Peach Bowl against Auburn, where he played in every game and had 495 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

The former Golden Knight received a medical redshirt the next season and then made the decision to come to JMU, and while he’s focused on being a Duke, the experience gained from playing on the national stage and being on a team that went undefeated is invaluable — especially for a JMU team with players in new roles.

Following the Dukes’ win over Morehead State, Vanhorse and Palmer each gave credit to the JMU O-Line for controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing the running backs to run free. Led by redshirt seniors Raymond Gillespie, J.T. Timming and Truvell Wilson and senior Liam Fornadel, the offensive front quickly established momentum and fostered opportunities for offensive production.

In Hamilton’s first touchdown, the O-Line allowed him to change direction and have an angle to get toward the end zone. Once met with a defender, he has to make a decision on which direction to cut. His elusiveness helped him break a tackle and score, but he’s shown that since he took a larger role in the offense.

His second touchdown versus the Eagles again showed his agility as he made a quick cut to get to the edge and ultimately win a footrace to the corner of the end zone. Having the ability to make fast movements to gain extra yards is a natural advantage that goes to the benefit of the Dukes. 

Solomon Vanhorse: Lightning fast

Vanhorse was a surprise breakout player in 2019 as the speedy running back who earned two CAA Rookie of the Week awards and had six total touchdowns in the season. He picked up where he left off against the Eagles, carrying the ball five times for 82 yards and on touchdown.

Following the game, Vanhorse said Agyei-Obese and Hamilton gave him information on what they saw on the field. They said the Morehead State linebackers were slow on the reads, so when the holes opened it was crucial to hit the gap fast for big gains. On Vanhorse’s touchdown run, that’s exactly what happened.

It’s simple: there are very few players — if any — who can run alongside Vanhorse. Cignetti knows speed can create explosive plays in one play, something also seen in redshirt junior wide receiver Kris Thornton.

“We’ve been waiting for so long, preparing for so long,” Vanhorse said. “Lifting, running, doing everything … Once we got the chance to go out there, we [were] so hype.”

Last season, Vanhorse had 12 catches for 133 yards and a score. His availability on pass plays gives the quarterback a chance to check down but have the creativity that Vanhorse possesses to still gain yards.

Latrele Palmer: Power, power and more power

Since his high school days, Palmer has showcased his ability to run over defenders. The Good Counsel (Olney, Maryland) product translated that to the college level, earning him play time in nine games, where he ran for 400 yards and four touchdowns. He was named the JMU Rookie of the Year, paving the way for him to continue his development into his second season.

Another example of the JMU offensive line holding its ground, Palmer was able to score his first touchdown of the 2021 season from six yards out. However, what made this play impressive was the truck at the goal line to ensure the score.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Cignetti said with a smile regarding Palmer’s first touchdown. “It was like, ‘Yeah, we’re back.’”

Palmer received offers from Air Force, Army and Navy — all three schools that run the triple option offense. The skills in his arsenal would be perfect for a run-dominant playbook, something found with the Dukes.

Similar to Agyei-Obese, Palmer’s strength helps him fall forward more often than not. Little pockets of extra yards add up, ultimately benefiting JMU.

It’s not just the four running backs either. Cignetti has praised freshman running back Kaelon Black, but he wasn’t available against Morehead State because of a minor injury. The problem Cignetti faces with the running backs is one that could guide them back to Frisco, and so far this spring, all are going to pay dividends for the Dukes.

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.