Duke's annual spring game10 (copy)

JMU head coach Curt Cignetti has a stacked roster heading into his first season at the helm of JMU football.

There’s no denying it — plenty has happened since JMU football’s season came to a close in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.

A head coach departed, a coaching search took place, a new coach was found, a staff was assembled, spring practices were held, a former player was drafted and more athletes signed NFL contracts.  

With changes across the board for the Dukes, there are questions about what the team will look like come Aug. 31 against West Virginia. But even with a new coaching staff, the positives easily outweigh the uncertainty.

The new season is less than 100 days away, and while many in JMU Nation are eagerly awaiting tailgating and watching from the stands at Bridgeforth Stadium, they should know exactly why this team will be exciting to watch when the season kicks off.  

This won’t be another year where JMU bows out unwillingly early in the playoffs. It won’t be a season with expectations left unfulfilled. When Mike Houston came to the Valley in 2016, no one said a first-year head coach could win a FCS National Title. But he did, and there’s no reason why newfound leader Curt Cignetti can’t do the same.

There’s numerous aspects of this team to be excited for. Here’s a few of the biggest to look forward to when the season gets underway.

No. 1: The fact JMU returns most of its starting lineup

Unlike FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, the Dukes are returning pretty much every key player they need to make a deep run. JMU will return 20 of 22 starters, while teams like the Bison lost over 20 seniors. The Dukes are young and experienced — a dangerous combination.

There’s no denying that losing Jimmy Moreland to graduation — and the NFL — will hurt, but the same thing was said last season when Rashad Robinson missed the year with a foot injury. Questions swirled about whether the defense would be lights out, but the players stepped up. Moreland became “the guy” for JMU in the secondary, and with Robinson back for his redshirt senior campaign, expect him to do the same exact thing Moreland did.

Moreland had a stellar final year in the purple and gold, recording five interceptions — three of which he returned for touchdowns. It’s going to be hard to fill that hole left by Moreland, but before Robinson’s injury, he was the CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year with experts saying he had a chance to be selected in the NFL Draft. Even after sustaining an injury, Robinson has the ability to match what Moreland accomplished last season.

The other notable loss for JMU, and arguably the only other one, is at the running back position. Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp are all gone, but if spring practices showed anything, there are guys ready to fill that void. Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton have the skill set to split time out of the backfield, and Cignetti sees potential in former walk-on Solomon Vanhorse. The Dukes also added three running backs with their freshman class: C.J. Jackson, Latrele Palmer and Austin Douglas — all of which had FBS offers.

The list of players to be excited to watch play next season could easily go on. John Daka, Ron’Dell Carter, Landan Word, Kyndel Dean, Adam Smith, D’Angelo Amos and Liam Fornadel — to keep the list somewhat brief — all played key roles last season. Yes, this is a roster that suffered an early exit and four losses, but it’s also a roster that’s one year older and stronger.

If there’s anything to know about sports, game-time experience is priceless, and this team has a great deal of it.

No. 2: The experience on the coaching staff

The idea that a coach can’t win big their first year has already been squashed. If there’s a leader that’s bound to lead a team that fell short of its goals back to the big stage, it’s Cignetti. His resume speaks for itself.

He’s taken teams that aren’t supposed to win and brought them to impressive levels. Take Indiana University of Pennsylvania, for example: Cignetti’s been there and helped the small school tucked away in a little-known town become a threat at the Division-II level. Elon: It’s a CAA rival to JMU and a school that Cignetti felt people had given up on when it came to football, but he saw hope and led the Phoenix to a win over JMU just last season.

Let’s not forget about the fact that Cignetti also coached with a guy named Nick Saban at Alabama — talk about a good mentor. His intentions and goals are clear, and for any fan, that’s exciting. Fans want a coach who’s going to pour everything into a team, and that’s what Cignetti has been doing in his six months with the program.

He’s adamant his team will lead the CAA in rushing. He’s been vocal that the Dukes have room to improve. He’s steadfast on making JMU the best team in the nation at the FCS level, and he’s created a staff around him that shares those same ideals.

No. 3: The two big FBS transfers on offense the Dukes nabbed

Cignetti & Co. have landed two transfers from FBS programs to join an already stacked roster. Over the past few years, JMU has become a popular landing spot for FBS transfers looking for a fresh start — and this offseason hasn’t been any different.

In the past few weeks, JMU has added two wide receivers from major FBS programs — Penn State and West Virginia. First, it was redshirt senior Brandon Polk who announced he’d be leaving Penn State to return to Virginia and finish his eligibility as a Duke.

During his career in Happy Valley, Polk amassed 367 receiving yards for four touchdowns — he also has a rushing score to his name. The Ashburn, Virginia, native has the skill set to thrive in an already loaded wide receivers group.

If the thought of Polk lining up beside guys like redshirt sophomore Kyndel Dean, redshirt junior Jake Brown and redshirt senior Riley Stapleton isn’t exciting enough, just throw WVU transfer Dillon Spalding into the mix, too.

Redshirting his first season with the Mountaineers, Spalding still has four years of eligibility left, so not only will it be exciting to have him with the current wide receiving group, JMU fans will be able to watch Spalding grow for the next few years. It’s probably safe to say the redshirt freshman is excited for the Dukes’ trip to Morgantown, West Virginia, in August.

The wide receivers room only lost David Eldridge to graduation and has reloaded like it lost the entire group. Teams across the CAA and the FCS should be scared when they see the JMU offense trot onto the field next season because JMU has the capability to hurt a team anyway it pleases.

While, no, you probably shouldn’t go ahead and book a hotel room in Frisco, Texas — it’s sports, anything could happen — it’s not far-fetched to believe that Dukes will once again be at Toyota Stadium. This team is young, this team is experienced and, beyond all else, this team is exciting.

Contact Catie Harper at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

Pat Summitt, Erin Andrews and Lindsay Czarniak were three names that inspired me growing up. Here I am now at JMU, Czarniak’s alma mater, taking steps to live out my dream. As Pat would say, “I’m going to keep on keepin’ on, I promise you that.”