JMU has become a transfer hotbed.
Players from schools across the college football realm have started taking notice of JMU’s fast rise in the national standings. For many transfers on JMU’s rosters, the winning culture in the locker room helped lead them to Harrisonburg.
From the Keystone State to the Old Dominion
If you told Ben DiNucci four years ago that he’d trade blue and gold for purple and gold, his answer would be simple.
“No way in the world that would ever happen,” DiNucci said.
Now redshirt senior DiNucci is about to end his college career 256 miles from where it began, but to him, it’s a “blessing in disguise.” The Wexford, Pennsylvania, native believes he found his perfect fit in Harrisonburg, whether it’s from an academic or athletic standpoint.
DiNucci isn’t the only former FBS transfer to wind up playing for the Dukes after starting their career in Pennsylvania. Redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk, while originally from Ashburn, Virginia, spent the first four years of his career at Penn State.
With one year left of eligibility, the process of returning to his home state has been easy. He knew two of the coaches — Ryan Smith and Andrew Jackson — from his time at Penn State, his home is only an hour and a half away, allowing his parents to make the trip for games, and the players in the locker room welcomed him in.
“I’m excited for the first home game [because] I’ll be able to see everything because I haven’t been to a home game,” Polk said. “That’s pretty much the same thing that I had at Penn State — it’s the same atmosphere.”
In recent years, JMU has become a landing spot for brothers wanting to play football together. Last season featured two sets of brothers who weren’t always with the same college program. Riley Stapleton and Robert Carter Jr. (’19) started at JMU, but their little brothers both found their way to the Shenandoah Valley later on.
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter sat four rows back from the JMU sideline while watching his brother play for the Dukes. The Baltimore native was enrolled at Rutgers at the time, but on that day, Ron’Dell’s dad knew the two brothers would play together again.
“I called my brother — they were fresh out the national championship — and I was like, ‘Bro, listen, this is the prime opportunity to make a childhood dream come true,’” Ron’Dell said.
And later that year, the Carter brothers’ dream came true. The duo played two seasons together before Robert finished his eligibility last season.
That same childhood dream Ron’Dell and Robert had was just like the one Riley and Dylan Stapleton shared. Dylan visited the school during his junior year while Riley was being recruited, and he fell in love.
A few years later, Dylan was playing college football for Slippery Rock — a Division-II school — when the opportunity to move to JMU came about. While the idea of playing with his older brother again was enticing, it wasn’t the lone factor in Dylan’s decision.
“Being a Division-II school, I just wanted to push my limits kind of, see what I was made of,” Dylan said. “Riley being here was a huge push for me, but … I knew a couple guys on the team. I just knew how close [they were]. There’s a family atmosphere.”
More than football
Senior linebacker Landan Word started his career a short drive down I-81 and I-64 at U. Va. In his first and only season at the FBS level, Word showed his worth. The Vienna, Virginia, native played in 11 games as a freshman, making 21 tackles, two sacks and one fumble recovery.
But one year later, Word was ready for a fresh start.
“The immediate effect of my decision was mostly, I think, the brotherhood and the team camaraderie,” Word said. “I think you lose a lot of that when you’re at the Single-A Division; I think it’s more of a business.”
One year after Word made his debut at JMU, more FBS transfers arrived ready to rep the purple and gold. Wayne Davis — who transferred in from FBS powerhouse Ohio State — had been looking at a few schools to potentially call home before finally selecting JMU.
Davis admits there were really only two schools at the FCS level he was looking at, but JMU wasn’t a hard sway. He saw the defense that former defensive coordinator Bob Trott had in place, and as a defensive back, his eyes went to the lofty turnover ratio. Players like Raven Greene, Jordan Thomas, Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland had all thrived in the secondary for the Dukes — something Davis loved.
Still, with other FBS offers still present for Davis, JMU’s FBS-like facilities help sell the program.
“This is not your typical FCS school,” Davis said. “Look at our field, you know, it’s not a typical FCS field.”
Atmosphere proves driving factor
Any fan who sits in the stands of Bridgeforth Stadium can acknowledge that there’s something about the environment.
There’s the Marching Royal Dukes, the vociferous fans who make their presence known and the infamous streamers. Each transfer had a different first experience at JMU, but each one also emphasized how special the culture at JMU is.
“I’d heard about it and seen videos and stuff like that, but you know, it really didn’t do it justice, honestly,” DiNucci said about the game-day environment. “The streamers were flying everywhere; it was loud … Obviously, I got to experience it last year, but before playing here, [it] was crazy. Kind of gave me goosebumps, like, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’”
And it’s not only a special atmosphere at Bridgeforth Stadium on game day — it’s everywhere around Harrisonburg. Davis recalls walking around Walmart after JMU’s annual “Meet the Dukes” and having fans approach him, knowing him by name, just to wish him luck in the upcoming season — something he said isn’t common at FCS schools.
Davis isn’t the only FBS transfer who believes this.
“I think it’s kind of a hidden gem,” DiNucci said. “We’re kind of starting to get recognized on more of a national spotlight with … some of the former guys that are playing really well in the NFL, so it’s just really good to see that … [JMU’s getting] some of that national recognition that it deserves.”
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.