Former Elon head coach Curt Cignetti put the pen to paper in Harrisonburg on Friday afternoon, becoming the eighth head coach in JMU football history. It was a swift and thorough process that took less than two weeks, and the Dukes now head into the offseason with their eyes set on filling out the coaching staff and officially signing the recruitment class of 2019.
A job that was interviewed for by a number of candidates was granted to the former quarterback from West Virginia, and he brings a mantra that should continue the recent stretch of JMU success. Here are the three biggest reasons as to why hiring Cignetti was the right move for the Dukes.
No. 1: A resume layered with winning experience
Of some of the names that floated around the head-coaching vacancy — Texas wide receivers’ coach Drew Mehringer, Maine head coach Joe Harasymiak and Maryland offensive line coach Bryan Stinespring — none have the 36 years of coaching experience like Cignetti.
His coaching career started back in 1983 when he was a graduate assistant for the ACC’s University of Pittsburgh and had various coaching stops at Rice, Temple and NC State. His big jump came in 2007, where he would spend four seasons with Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide as the recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach.
Cignetti’s first time as a head coach came in 2011 when he joined the the Division II-level Indiana (Pa.) Crimson Hawks. In his six years at the helm he led his teams to a combined 53-17 record with three postseason appearances and four top-25 finishes in the national rankings.
Moving up to the FCS level, Cignetti continued his winning ways with the Elon Phoenix of the CAA. In back-to-back seasons, Elon made it to the playoffs and was ranked as high as seventh in the STATS FCS top-25 poll in 2018.
For a JMU program in the midst of its brightest era in program history, it could’ve been dangerous to gamble on a younger head coach or a coach that would’ve received his first head-coaching job. With Cignetti, the Dukes get a battle-tested head coach who's seen consistent winning at all of his stops.
No. 2: A coach familiar with the CAA, and more importantly JMU
In recent years the CAA has made itself known as one of, if not the most, dominant and talented conferences at the FCS level. With an FCS-record six teams making the postseason in 2018, this conference is as competitive as they come in college football.
Whereas a hire outside of the CAA could’ve brought a longer learning curve and potential slow start in 2019, the Dukes will be able to hit the ground running with a level of familiarity of its conference foes. In 2018, Cignetti played against New Hampshire, Towson, Rhode Island and Richmond — four of the Dukes’ 2019 CAA opponents. It also doesn’t hurt to point out that JMU opens up its conference play in Elon against Cignetti’s former squad.
An opponent of JMU in 2017 and 2018, Cignetti should already have a strong familiarity with the personnel inside the Dukes’ locker room. With no need to start slow and ease into his first season, Cignetti and the Dukes will be able to continue its recent success inside the CAA.
No. 3: An offensive mind at the helm to reignite JMU’s unit
One of the downfalls to the 2018 season for JMU was the decline of former offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick’s unit. After the Dukes tore apart the FCS in 2016 — averaging 46.67 points a game, 7,612 yards of offense and an average of 6.9 yards per play — those numbers dropped down to 33.92, 5,290 and 5.9 in 2018.
Even with a mobile quarterback in redshirt junior Ben DiNucci under center this season, the Dukes averaged 4.7 yards a rush and 183.3 yards per game. While those numbers aren’t necessarily bad, comparing it to the 5.5 yards per rush and 275 rushing yards a game in 2016 points to one of the bigger drop-offs from the first year to the last year of the Mike Houston era.
At Elon last season, Cignetti’s offense ranked third in the CAA in rushing yards per game and fourth in yards per attempt. Those aren’t the most braggadocious numbers themselves, however the Phoenix did lose senior running back Malcolm Summers after five games. Until his injury, Elon was rushing for nearly 220 yards a game and had 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Cignetti played with a banged-up offense for half a season but was still able to make it to the playoffs and finish in the top quarter of the CAA in rushing. His offensive scheme mixed with the personnel still in the purple and gold should bring a resurgence to the JMU offense in 2019.
Contact Blake Pace at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.