defensepci

JMU football's defense runs at Richmond in the regular season finale during the spring season.

Defense wins championships.

It’s a football saying that means to not overlook the defense in favor of the offense and scoreboard’s presence. In JMU’s case, this defensive line could win its third FCS championship.

JMU football has seen some up-and-down quarterback and offensive play through its 50 seasons, but when it comes to defense, the Dukes have mostly stayed consistent. The fall 2021 defense has the potential to be the deepest in recent years.

Just how deep is the defensive line?

A key takeaway from both head coach Curt Cignetti’s training camp interviews and defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman is that this is potentially one of the deepest defensive lines the Dukes have ever had. 

“I think [the defensive depth] is the biggest thing that’s shown up in training camp so far,” Hetherman said. “I think our veteran guys have really stepped up and done a good job competing.”

It starts with redshirt senior defensive lineman Mike Greene as the face of the defense. Greene played pure defensive line in the spring, stepping in to fill some holes and becoming a captain, but the Richmond, Virginia, native is moving toward the outside more for the fall season. When asked about what he’s going to say to help the young depth of the defensive line come from last season, his answer was  simple: “Stay focused,” and play the game with passion.

“I just tell [the younger players] to stay focused,” Greene said. “Just know that football can be taken away from you at any time.”

Cignetti brought in   defensive competition this year after saying there wasn’t enough in the spring season. Bryce Carter, a transfer from Towson, is an experienced player and can provide more depth on the defense.

“[Carter] is a veteran guy … you can definitely tell he’s been in a couple games before,” Hetherman said. “[Carter’s] done a great job for us. He comes off the football really well, uses his hands really well [and] has a really good understanding of scheme.” 

JMU also has lots of youth on the defensive line, including players such as sophomore Jalen Green and redshirt junior Issac Ukwu, both of whom saw minutes in the spring. There have also been praises from Cignetti for redshirt freshman Mikail Kamara out of camp, a young talent 

Redshirt freshman James Carpenter is another player to watch — a walk-on who now should see minutes this fall after developing into an all-around tackle with leadership potential.

“James Carpenter is a guy [who], week in, week out, does the same things,” Hetherman said. “He communicates well … you know he’s always on top of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tuesday practice, a Wednesday practice or a Friday scrimmage.”

To sum it up, there’s no shortage of talent or production coming from JMU’s first line of defense.

 JMU’s position: Linebacker

Historically, JMU has been good at one position: the linebacker.

From Charles Haley to all the talent on both championship rosters, JMU football has consistently recruited and explored linebacker talent, shown by how they’ve performed in big moments.

“We all have the same [team] goals aligned,” redshirt senior linebacker Kelvin Azanama said. “[We’re] trying to lean toward the best team we can potentially be.”

Azanama and redshirt junior linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey are both key components to keeping the linebacker position strong. Azanama had 54 tackles in the spring — a career-high — and two interceptions. 

“[I’ve worked on] my footwork and my hands,” Azanama said. “My coach has harped on me having better breaks to the ball and tackling.”

Tucker-Dorsey saw consistent minutes in both 2019 and the spring, with 35 solo tackles and 55 assists.

Between Azanama and Tucker-Dorsey, getting past the linebackers won’t be easy, especially with their speed and chemistry on the field.

What’s safe to say

A position other teams can’t afford to overlook is the safety at JMU. While the safeties vary in size and experience, it’s made up for by playmaking ability supported by statistics.

Redshirt senior safety M.J. Hampton, redshirt senior safety Wayne Davis and redshirt sophomore safety Que Reid are the notable players in this position and play in similar ways. Additionally, both Reid and Davis are similar in weight and size. Davis, a transfer from Ohio State, is a three-year starter and has 88 solo tackles and five interceptions.

“Right now I’m just getting ready and helping the [younger players] out,” Davis said. “Hopefully, this year, we can go back to Frisco.”

Hampton is another senior that had a breakout season in the spring and will make an impact this fall. Out of the 42 tackles Hampton posted in the spring, 26 were solo, and he accounted for two forced fumbles. Hampton plays with emotion and passion, and his on-the-field celebrations show that. His senior leadership at safety is key for JMU this season, so look for him to see plenty of action.

Reid will be an experienced player and leader this year and years following. The Concord, North Carolina, native has seen consistent minutes post-freshman year and has played in all games since 2018. Reid is fast, young and will likely be a core piece this year and in seasons to come.

“I think [Reid] right now is playing well,” Hetherman said. “He’s done a really good job of really getting a better understanding of the defense and having more urgency of getting lined up and communicate.”

Redshirt senior safety Jalen Phelps transferred from Eastern Michigan in the fall and provides an extra layer of depth in the secondary. Between the three experienced players, the safety position has depth and talent. 

Just around the corner

When it comes to the secondary, JMU has a mix of players who have seen significant time and freshmen who haven’t seen many minutes.

Redshirt senior cornerback Taurus Carroll will see time this season and is first on the depth chart at free cornerback. Carroll made four starts in the spring and had eight tackles and two interceptions and will see significant time while redshirt senior cornerback Wesley McCormick recovers from the late season injury from the spring.

Speaking of McCormick, he's back for the Dukes after taking an injury against North Dakota in the FCS quarterfinals. McCormick blossomed in the spring, earning his time to start seven games and accounting for 16 solo tackles. The Germantown, Maryland, native used his size and agility to break up passes and step up when others were injured. 

Redshirt senior cornerback Greg Ross is another player to watch. The UNC transfer made five starts in the spring and had nine tackles with three pass breakups. Ross made the Virginia All-State Second Team this past spring, and with his knowledge from five years of football, fans can expect to see Ross on the field this fall.

Redshirt junior cornerback Jordan Swann transferred to JMU from Maine in the offseason and gave Cignetti another option for the secondary. Swann has playoff experience with the Black Bears, and while he’ll have to compete for minutes, he’ll be around for two seasons.

Wrapping it up

The Dukes’ defense isn’t just one unit — they go three deep. The defensive line has veteran talent in different combinations, and the secondary has speed and agility that’s gotten better in training camp.

JMU football has had some strong defenses through the years. Depending on how the Dukes do this fall, the 2021 defense could climb the ranks with the championship teams.

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