JMU Nation was stunned.
A team that the JMU faithful had come to expect deep in the playoffs was suddenly bounced two games shy of a third straight appearance in the FCS National Championship game. A last second field goal by Colgate put the Raiders up 23-20, ending the Dukes’ run at redemption.
With the season over, things changed quickly. Less than 24 hours after the field goal, former head coach Mike Houston left for the FBS, which was followed by an almost two-week coaching search — one that ended with former CAA rival Curt Cignetti coming to the program.
While it’s been almost four months since JMU football fell to the No. 8 team in the playoffs and went through a major overhaul, the pain of the loss is still there. As spring practices get underway, the team has its sights on getting back to the top spot in the FCS.
“It [does] hurt that we lost in the playoffs,” rising redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kyndel Dean said. “But we just got to remember it, we got to bite the bullet, we got to come back harder, work harder. We’ve got to have a better connection, we just got to play harder.”
And playing harder is just what the Dukes are doing through the first two weeks of practices. While they’re still learning Cignetti’s system, a positive energy is already there. Even when the weather conditions aren’t great, the players are making the most of their time.
When JMU gathered for practice March 21, the weather didn’t exemplify what most think of when they imagine good football weather. Near freezing temperatures and a steady downfall of rain made the environment less than ideal, but that didn’t stop the defense from celebrating every pass breakup or near interception.
“That’s just because of the Colgate game and how we ended last year,” rising redshirt junior safety/returner D’Angelo Amos said. “I feel like the guys know what kind of energy we need to have at all times, even in conditions like this. We’re known to thrive in bad weather conditions that other teams normally can’t, so we’re just trying to keep that and uphold that standard and just play ball.”
Though the Dukes’ season didn’t end the way they wanted it to last year, the season wasn’t all bad. While JMU did suffer four losses, the most in a single season since 2014, there were bright spots throughout the roster.
Last season, JMU boasted a young receiving core that racked up almost 3,000 yards for 17 touchdowns, including Dean who contributed with 47 receptions for 614 yards and five scores. Heading into this season, the bulk of that group will return to suit up for Cignetti. Of the players that hauled in at least 15 receptions last season, the Dukes only lost David Eldridge to graduation.
On the defensive side of the ball, JMU returns seven out of eight players who recorded at least 45 tackles. While the defense did lose arguably the biggest player of last season — Jimmy Moreland — the return of rising redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson will help keep the Dukes’ secondary lights out. For Cignetti, while this program experienced a setback last season, there’s potential on the roster.
“This wasn’t broke,” Cignetti said. “But, everything either gets better or gets worse: it never stays the same, so it’s got to get better.”
While the early exit still lingers in the minds of some of the players, they’re trying to focus on the road ahead, not the problems behind them. Amos experienced a breakout season last year, recording 64 tackles, six passes defended and two fumble recoveries. Along with making his mark on defense, Amos proved he’s one of the top punt returners in the FCS with 549 yards and three touchdowns.
The Richmond, Virginia, native, however, has his mind set on fixing the mistakes he made during his redshirt sophomore campaign. He saw, over the course of 13 games last year, that his struggles impacted the defensive unit as a whole.
“My coverages was one of my biggest weaknesses,” Amos said. “So, just work on my coverage, my techniques, definitely my eyes. So like I said, the same thing that’s kind of been the problem for our defense as a whole, I feel like I definitely contribute to that in a negative way.”
With a little over five months until the Dukes take the field against West Virginia, they have their goals set. JMU won’t settle for anything less than its best. For Dean, while he and his teammates will take the season one week and one game at a time, he doesn’t just want to win — he wants to win big.
“Expectations: I want to win everything,” Dean said. “I don’t want to lose no games, I don’t want no games to be close, I want to blow teams out, I want to have fun.”
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.