To redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter, last season wasn’t a success.
“You know, 9-4 to any other team is a great season,” Carter said. “To us, it’s mediocre.”
When the 2018 season ended with a 23-20 loss to Colgate in the second round of the FCS Playoffs, it was the first time in two years the Dukes wouldn’t be in the national title game. It was also the first time since 2014 that JMU failed to claim a share of the CAA title.
The team that had experienced extraordinary amounts of success in the two prior seasons suffered its most losses since 2014. But with the 2019 season looming, the Dukes — along with a new coaching staff — are ready.
While new faces on the coaching staff will walk the sidelines, the players on defense take the field with another year of experience to their names.
JMU is set to return most of its starters on defense this year and will also showcase the return of redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson after he suffered a season-ending injury in a 2018 fall camp scrimmage.
“Even when we look at the defense, we lost Jimmy [Moreland], but we’re replacing Jimmy with Rashad — All-American guy, a guy who’s capable of winning the Buck Buchanan this year,” Carter said. “We lost Darius Carter, but [John] Daka was our All-American [defensive end] last year.”
This year’s JMU defense will be a hard one to ignore for other CAA teams. During 2019, most of the athletes taking the field on defense for the Dukes will be juniors or older and will have worn purple and gold for at least one season.
Highlighting the defensive roster are players who claimed spots on the 2018 All-CAA team like Carter and senior safety Adam Smith. Heading into the 2019 season, Carter and Smith were joined by fellow defenders Robinson and redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway on the 2019 Preseason All-CAA team, which was announced back in July.
“It’s going to be great,” redshirt junior safety Wayne Davis said on playing with experience. “Now, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know how each other plays, and we can play off each other.”
An abundance of experience has also led to deep-rooted chemistry among the defense. To Robinson, an X-factor to this season’s team is the relationship the defensive players have with one another both on and off the field.
“When I’m beside Dimitri at corner, all I have to do is say one word, [and] he knows exactly what I mean,” Robinson said. “With Wayne, all I have to do is give one signal … or say one word; he knows exactly what I’m doing … Brotherhood and chemistry is something that you don’t see on every team that I see that we have on the defensive side of the ball.”
Since 2015, the Dukes have made massive strides on the defensive side of the ball. When former defensive coordinator Bob Trott came to Harrisonburg in 2016, there was untapped potential. By the end of the 2016 season, JMU had moved up the standings in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense. When the 2017 season finished, the Dukes were either No. 1 and No. 2 in the FCS in total, pass, rush and scoring defense.
While Trott departed the program back in December with former head coach Mike Houston, there’s a new set of coaches ready to capitalize on the preexisting talent in the JMU locker room. Head coach Curt Cignetti and company are taking over a defense that allowed a CAA-low 20 touchdowns and 289.5 yards per game.
Over the course of spring practices and fall camp, Cignetti’s staff has implemented a fast-paced defense. Senior linebacker Landan Word said that, while it did take time to adjust to the new defense, the unit is starting to grasp it.
“When you’re constantly thinking about not making mistakes, you’re not going to play nearly as fast as you [should],” Word said. “The whole defense has kind of picked up that whole mantra that this is going to be a fast-paced defense, and if everyone can just be on board and we can stay consistent, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be one of the best defenses in the country.”
When the 2019 season gets underway Saturday against West Virginia, the defensive brotherhood will need to replicate its past successes in order to help JMU get back to the FCS National Championships.
In recent years, it hasn’t been one guy making the plays for the Dukes. There may be one or two players for JMU who find themselves leading a category for an individual statistic — like Moreland last season for interceptions. For this defense, the individual awards aren’t important.
It’s the team recognition.
“Team supersedes anything individually,” Carter said. “When you’re better as a team, individually, you’ll always do better. But just because you do better individually [doesn’t] mean you do better as a team.”
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.