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JMU football returns 10 of 11 defensive starters.

High expectations aren’t new for JMU football. After a second-round exit in the 2018 FCS playoffs, it’s bringing back most of its best players in what was a top-ranked defense in the FCS, but that’s not stopping the unit from looking to improve in every aspect of the game. 

Head coach Curt Cignetti is inheriting players like senior defensive lineman John Daka and redshirt junior safety D’Angelo Amos, who each helped the Dukes establish themselves as a dominant force in the CAA. With the return of redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson, Cignetti has weapons at his disposal — but the most important trait many of his defenders will have is experience. 

In 2018, the Dukes finished with the second-best rush defense in the CAA, only allowing 104.4 yards on the ground per game. They were first in the conference in scoring defense, giving up just 14.6 points per game during its 13-game season. 

With Cignetti still implementing his playbook, the defense will need time to adjust to the new system. It’s a process filled with mistakes, but the team knows that, through trial and error, it’ll get better by August. 

“I see practices becoming physical and faster,” Cignetti said. “It’s starting to sink in. The installation, the language, they’re not thinking as much — they’re playing. I see them getting better.”

Cignetti runs his practices with an up-tempo mindset that he hopes will help the players stay on their toes and be better prepared for the regular season. Another thing the team wants to work on is tidying up the minor details and making sure no easy play is given up. 

It’s no secret that JMU’s defense is expected to remain a top-level force in the nation. In HERO Sports’ Way-Too-Early Top 10, they placed the Dukes at no. 1 over powerhouse North Dakota State. HERO Sports cited the return of 21 starters, which will be a factor as the 2019 season progresses.  

Despite having players like Daka return with another year of experience under their belt, others will rise up and have breakout seasons. One player waiting in the wings is redshirt sophomore linebacker Isaac Ukwu, who played in three games during the 2018 season and redshirted his freshman year. 

“I’m just trying to start off by doing my job by being able to make plays and come off of that,” Ukwu said. “First, you’ve got to be able to do your responsibility, and then, once you do that, you can go above and beyond and start making plays.”

Ukwu mentioned how his fellow defensive linemen have helped him grow this offseason and in spring practices. He says he treats practices like he does games and believes if he continues that mindset, the solid performances will come. 

Spring practices aren’t perfect, though they continue to be a chance for each side of the ball to learn about each other and figure what needs to work on what to reach an elite level of play.

“I’m just trying to start off by doing my job by being able to make plays and come off of that,” Ukwu said. “First, you’ve got to be able to do your responsibility, and then, once you do that, you can go above and beyond and start making plays.”

Ukwu mentioned how his fellow defensive linemen have helped him grow this offseason and in spring practices. He says he treats practices like he does games and believes if he continues that mindset, the solid performances will come. 

Spring practices aren’t perfect, though they continue to be a chance for each side of the ball to learn about each other and figure out who needs to work on what to reach an elite level of play. So far, the defensive line has shown it can be a strong complement to a powerful secondary, so long as it can tune up its run defense. 

“Obviously, we’re going to make mistakes on the field,” Daka said. “As long as we’re playing 100 miles per hour, we can make up for a lot of things.”

Daka notes that one of the biggest things about the defense returning is that the players are comfortable with each other. After going through a coaching change, the chemistry already built has helped them make the transition as smooth as possible. 

Their confidence is building in all aspects, but Cignetti has mentioned there’s always room to get better. Although he mentioned the defensive line has flexed its muscles and made itself a guest in the backfield during practices and scrimmages, Cignetti still sees growing pains. 

“I think each guy still has to improve and become more consistent,” Cignetti said. “We’re going to be putting more stuff in, we don’t have the whole package in yet. We still have too many missed assignments. We don’t always get guys playing snap the whistle or playing with great pad level.”

Fans who wear purple on gold Saturdays are patiently waiting for the spring game on April 13 to get their first taste of what the team will look like for the upcoming season. The players know where the bar is set, and they’re all confident the Dukes will not only reach — but exceed — their high expectations.

“[JMU fans] should expect a fast, physical defense that’s ready to make plays, hype up the crowd and get everybody into it,” Ukwu said. “As long as they’ve got our back, we’ve got their back.”

 Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football 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.