Every offseason, teams are surrounded by questions. For JMU, a new head coach only brings more, and the spotlight on them is bright.
Head coach Curt Cignetti comes in with pedigree. After coaching at Power Five schools such as North Carolina State, Pittsburgh and Alabama, he took his first head coaching job at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. After finishing with a 53-17 record in six years, he made the jump to the FCS level at Elon. There, his smashmouth offense turned the Phoenix into a formidable foe.
Now, Cignetti will take the next step in his head coaching career at one of the top programs in the FCS, but this time around he’ll have the luxury of a high-powered offense that’s loaded with talent.
With redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci tabbed as QB1, the Dukes have someone with big-game experience under his belt. The next step for the Pittsburgh transfer is learning from his first season as the starting quarterback and improving for his second season at the helm.
“There were a lot of things I did well last season, and it’s important for me to keep doing those things well,” DiNucci said. “There were some things last year I didn’t do well. I think turnovers are probably the biggest. Those two games last year — Colgate and New Hampshire — I felt like I had let the team down.”
DiNucci says the two biggest things for him this fall camp are to be more consistent and limit turnovers. Those were factors that hindered JMU, but his athleticism and leadership are traits that’ll help him continue to be a weapon.
Having an experienced offensive line is key for every championship-caliber team. Not only does it bode well for the backfield, but the veteran leadership will help keep the locker room together in tough situations.
With Marcus Marshall, Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharp all graduating, the running back group will be heavily influenced by younger players who are eager to break out. Junior Percy Agyei-Obese has already impressed, as he averaged 9.3 yards per carry in 2018. Redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse received praise from Cignetti in the spring, while freshman Austin Douglas has also caught the new coach’s attention.
“The running backs perform better when the offensive line performs better, and I’ve been pleased with the progress of our line, and I think we have the chance to be pretty good up front,” Cignetti said. “But, I feel like we have five running backs right now that we could play — that at some point in the season, probably will play … We’ve got good depth in that position, and I feel good about it.”
Cignetti’s offense depends on a consistent, hard-nosed running game that allows the passing game to be spread across the field. With numerous running backs providing different options for Cignetti, his offense is set to flow well heading into the regular season.
When the running backs draw the attention of the opposition’s linebackers, it allows the wide receivers to take advantage of a condensed defense. Players like redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kyndel Dean and senior tight end Dylan Stapleton will give DiNucci the luxury of having multiple players who are capable of making big plays.
“I think we’re running the ball really well, our wideouts have been playing well and our quarterbacks have been playing great,” Stapleton said. “There’s a lot of potential in our offense. If we keep doing our job and trusting the process, we have a chance to be a really good offense.”
It’s easy to pen the Dukes as a national title favorite. With 20 of 22 starters returning, the experience among the team should minimize on-the-field errors. JMU’s offense has the tools to capitalize off its defensive prowess, but the improvement must continue into the regular season and beyond.
“I really believe that this year, if we do our job and stay motivated, I really do believe we can get back to Frisco and hold the trophy up,” Stapleton said.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.