Redshirt junior linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey burst out of the doors of the Plecker Athletic Performance Center and yelled out in joy. It was the mark of the beginning of practices in preparation for a peculiar football year after a whirlwind offseason.
This year, the offseason is longer. It’s been filled with more uncertainty than a quarterback controversy and will continue to be a day-to-day process until the FCS Championship game set for May.
Most FCS teams are gearing up for “fall camp.” Universities like Central Arkansas and The Citadel scheduled and played games this fall but will still be eligible to compete in the spring. With squads at various levels of preparation, these preseason camps will be vital in determining the top teams of FCS football.
JMU wanted to be in the mix of FCS programs playing this fall but couldn’t lock down opponents. Now, the Dukes are preparing for a spring season that’ll see a six-game CAA schedule with two non-conference opponents.
It’s already confirmed JMU will host Robert Morris — and Dukes’ head coach Curt Cignetti said it’s close to securing its second opponent — but even without a solidified schedule, the team remains focused on what it can control, and that’s making sure players are prepared for what they’ll face come February.
“I think we’re on schedule, we’ve made a lot of progress,” Cignetti said. “We’ve got young guys developing, we’re practicing closer to how we wanna practice. It’s not always perfect, but I think we’ve improved every day defensively, offensively and on special teams.”
The Dukes have lost key players like defensive linemen Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka as well as quarterback Ben DiNucci and wide receivers Brandon Polk and Riley Stapleton. They also lost defensive back D’Angelo Amos and defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa to the transfer portal, with both now at UVA.
Amos and Atariwa departed because of the uncertainty that surrounded FCS football as the season approached, but the CAA is set to complete a regular season in the spring and culminate with the FCS playoffs in May.
“I was excited that we were gonna get a shot at a season,” senior offensive lineman Liam Fornadel said. “With all the uncertainty that was around the fall season, and even the spring season, I was just excited that we were gonna be able to practice, go out there, work out, keep doing what we’ve been doing. I’m really looking forward to what the spring has for us.”
So far, Fornadel said practice has been similar to previous years. The focus is making sure incoming freshmen and underclassmen are smoothly acclimating to college football. Overall, though, the team is focusing on the details and intricacies of the playbook while staying consistent on the field.
On the opposing side of Fornadel’s position group, the defensive line is looking to fill the gap left by impact players Carter and Daka. Redshirt sophomore Abi N-Okonji transferred from Minnesota and is expected to slot into a significant role, while players like redshirt sophomore Antonio Colclough and redshirt junior Isaac Ukwu — who’s returning from injury — are hoping to earn their way into consistent game time.
“I think we’re molding together really good,” senior defensive lineman Mike Greene said. “We lost, definitely, a lot of talent on the defensive line with [Atariwa] leaving this year and moving down the road. But we’ve had a lot of people step up. A lot of young guys, a lot of guys that’ve been here for a long time but have been waiting for their spot to open up.”
Cignetti said he’s pleased with the development of the younger players on the team. He added that this season, depth is more crucial because if a player tests positive for the coronavirus, multiple players could miss the game because of contact tracing and quarantine rules.
However, despite the new guidelines like coaching staff and personnel needing masks or face shields, Cignetti said once the players cross the white lines and step onto the field, things aren’t any different. That could be key in preparing for another season, even if it isn’t in the fall. The biggest alterations have come with meetings, as they’ve shifted to either online or in a room big enough to allow social distancing.
As for the underclassmen trying to get their breakthrough moment, the offensive line is a spot of opportunity. With the departures of Mac Patrick and Jahee Jackson, critical positions need to be filled.
“I’ve liked what I’ve seen as they progress throughout the days, throughout the practices,” Fornadel said. “They’ve really shown the effort to come in and continuously [work] on getting better. As a lot of freshmen do, there’s a long way to go, but it’s good to see them willing to better themselves and compete.”
The conference unveiled its two-division format Tuesday, with teams playing six games each. So far, Towson is the only school to opt out of the spring season, but no other school has indicated they’ll follow suit.
“I feel confident that everybody else is solid in terms of their commitment to play,” Cignetti said. “We’re really looking forward to the spring season.”
Coaches and players are now preparing for what’s expected to be another trophy-contending season in Harrisonburg. With new faces eager to make statements and power through unfamiliar times, it adds another level of eagerness for players who yearn to run onto the field and compete once again.
“It’s huge, you know," Fornadel said. “It’s one of our goals [to win] the conference, winning the national championship are two of this team’s biggest goals. I’d probably say, honestly, our only goals, really. It’s what this program’s been built on. It’s our tradition.”
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.