With a Week 1 matchup against West Virginia looming for JMU football, head coach Curt Cignetti took to the CAA teleconference, touching on subjects from his team’s play to his own history at WVU.
No. 1: Even after the starting decision, quarterbacks continue to work well
It’s been less than a week since Cignetti announced that redshirt senior Ben DiNucci would be the player to lead the Dukes under center come Week 1. Since the decision, both DiNucci and redshirt junior Cole Johnson have continued to show they’re both strong options.
Prior to fall camp, it was a three-man race for the starting job between DiNucci, Johnson and redshirt sophomore Gage Moloney before the latter suffered a hamstring injury.
“I feel like we have three guys, you know, that could get the job done,” Cignetti said. “I think that Ben, by his performance, had earned it, and he sort of felt that way and knew it.”
Both DiNucci and Johnson have shown throughout camp that their experience with the program can help JMU down the road. DiNucci started every game last season on his way to a Third Team All-CAA selection. Johnson — though mainly being a backup during his career — held strong when JMU needed him after former quarterback Bryan Schor was injured prior to the start of the 2016 playoffs.
“[Ben’s] a veteran guy with a lot of experience and, you know, really committed to sort of upping his game another notch,” Cignetti said. “Cole Johnson knows he's one play away, and [he’s] played significant snaps here in the past and does a lot of things really well.”
No. 2: Run game defense needs to be strong against WVU
The JMU run defense is set to face a loaded backfield in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Last season, the Dukes were No. 2 in the CAA against the run with only Maine in front of them. When Cignetti got to Harrisonburg, he nabbed Corey Hetherman from Maine to lead the JMU defense — a move that’ll help the unit remain dominant.
While the Dukes now have Hetherman in tow, the running back group they’re about to face will test their strength. The Mountaineers return four backs who recorded 100 or more last season. Of those four, Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway, had over 600 yards to their names along with at least six touchdowns.
“They've got all their backs back, they've all been productive up to the running football, and you got some starters back on the offensive line,” Cignetti said. “It always starts with being able to run the ball and stop the run … [and] to stop the run, you got to win the battles up front.”
The Dukes should be strong against the run with the majority of their returners back for another season. Players like redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter, senior linebacker Landan Word, senior defensive lineman John Daka and redshirt junior defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa can all help limit WVU’s rush attack, who all started for JMU last season. The Dukes will be without one of their top performers in redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway, who’s out for a couple of weeks with an injury.
No. 3: Running back room has depth but lacks game experience
Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharp and DiNucci all played key roles in JMU’s run game last season, but with the first three now gone, the Dukes need a player to step up. The running back room at JMU is loaded with potential talent, but most of the players in that group have had limited playing time.
Cignetti has said from the start of his time with the Dukes that his team would lead the CAA in rushing. So far, there’ve been multiple backs who seem ready to try and help Cignetti reach his goal, ranging from more experienced runners like junior Percy Agyei-Obese and redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton to true freshman Austin Douglas.
“I don't think we've really had one running back separate themselves from the others,” Cignetti said. “They all do something a little bit well, [and] some of them are kind of the total package.”
Agyei-Obese has the most experience with the program, now entering his third season. The true-junior had 18 rushing attempts last season for 168 yards and a single touchdown.
Redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton is entering his second season in Harrisonburg after transferring to the program from UCF. The Miami native saw most of his playing time come from kickoff returns last season, which could translate to success on offense.
“I know this — when you're committed to running the football, and you're successful running football, you got to have three or four backs ready to go every day,” Cignetti said. “I feel good about our depth.”
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.