Duke's annual spring game12

DiNucci drops back for a pass.

JMU football has concluded spring ball and is transitioning into preparing for fall camp and its season opener on Aug. 31 against West Virginia.

Throughout the month, there were glimpses at potential position battles, how the new coaching staff runs the team and players who could step up to leave an impact throughout the 2019 season. Here are the top things we’ve learned from spring practices and the annual Spring Game.

No. 1: The quarterback battle is still a three-man race

It’s been the talk of the offseason since head coach Curt Cignetti made it clear that no one was guaranteed the starting job. Unlike last season’s battle when there were only two quarterbacks left after the 2018 Spring Game, Ben DiNucci, Cole Johnson and Gage Moloney are all still options for the upcoming season.

“This battle will continue on,” Cignetti said.

Each quarterback had bright moments in the Spring Game last weekend. Johnson led the offense to two touchdowns, DiNucci had a touchdown throw and Moloney got out to a fast start in the opening quarter.

Johnson, who was DiNucci’s backup last season and also redshirted after playing in just four games, showed poise during his time under center. Johnson threw for 145 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown grab to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jamir Hudson.

“It seemed like when [Johnson] was in there, we were completing passes,” Cignetti said. “He had a couple runs also … I thought he had a nice day.”

As the Dukes head into the summer and preseason, there aren’t any answers about who’ll lead JMU under center next season. Each player has the skill set to start at the Division I level and succeed at it.

No. 2: Solomon Vanhorse could see a good chunk of playing time out of the backfield

He’s a walk-on, and he’s making sure Cignetti knows his name.

The rising redshirt freshman running back joined the team under former head coach Mike Houston last year and didn’t see any playing time, but don’t expect that this season. Throughout the entirety of spring practices, Cignetti praised Vanhorse’s effort and dedication to growing his game.

“I feel like I gradually got improved,” Vanhorse said of his play this spring. “I feel like I matured as a player, and I feel like I’m becoming more coachable than I was before, learning new skills I didn’t know.”

While being one of the smallest players on the team — standing at only 5 feet, 8 inches — the potential is there for the Alpharetta, Georgia, native. In high school, Vanhorse racked up 1,540 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns during his senior year, earning him a spot on the Georgia 7A First Team All-Region.

Oh, and he’s pretty fast, too. Vanhorse set the Milton High School track and field record in the 100-m and 200-m dash.

“He continues to do it one play at a time,” Cignetti said. “He can run it, he can catch it, he does what he’s supposed to do. He’s very reliable and dependable.”

No. 3: John Daka is still going to be John Daka — and potentially better

The Upper Marlboro, Maryland, native had a breakout season as a true junior last year. Daka saw action in every game on his way to 22 solo tackles and a team-high 10 sacks.

The rising senior defensive end had at least a half sack in eight games last season and more than one in three of those contests. Back for a one final year with more experience at hand, there’s nothing standing in the way of Daka having an even better season than last year.

“I just want to add different moves to my repertoire,” Daka said. “Pass rush wise, stopping the run wise, I want to rework on getting off blocks more … Not just physically wise, I want to be more of a leader out there.”

In Saturday’s Spring Game, Daka contributed 1.5 sacks in the two quarters of play, an amount many can expect per game next season. Rising redshirt sophomore Isaac Ukwu also had two sacks in the game.

No. 4: Youth of defense will provide good depth for returners

If there was something missing from spring practices and the Spring Game, it was the majority of the players who will likely start on the defensive side of the ball for JMU during the 2019 season.

The only defensive starters from last season who saw action  on Saturday were Daka, safety D’Angelo Amos and linebackers Landan Word and Dimitri Holloway. Across the rest of the defense, there were relatively new faces trying to show Cignetti and his staff what they could bring to the team.

“I was in their shoes as well,” Daka said. “There’s going to come a point where you have to mature. You’re going to have to be that guy where the team relies on you to be major contributors, but the younger guys did a good job stepping up … I think the young guys responded very well this spring.”

Players like rising redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter and rising senior safety Adam Smith had strong seasons last year and should prove valuable throughout next year. Rising redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson will make his much anticipated return after missing last season due to an injury to his foot.

The youth on the defense will likely provide key depth as the Dukes look to get back to the FCS National Championship game after falling short last year. However, Cignetti does believe that some of the younger players could challenge returners for the starting positions as fall camp begins.

“I think we’ve got some good, young players in the secondary,” Cignetti said. “Some of the young linebackers have stepped up a little bit, so you’ve got to have depth … So, the more competition, the better.”

No. 5: Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton are built to be key running backs

JMU lost its three primary running backs — Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp— following the conclusion of last season. With Cignetti determined to lead the CAA next season in rushing, a new frontman is needed.

Rising junior Percy Agyei-Obese and rising redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton may be the answer.

Agyei-Obese was the fourth leading rusher for the Dukes in 2019 behind the trio of now-graduated backs and DiNucci. He’s accumulated 441 yards and two touchdowns during his time as a Duke. Of those, 168 yards and one score came last season. Entering his season, the junior becomes the most experienced back in the Dukes’ arsenal, being at the school longer than Hamilton.

“I thought they did fairly well,” Cignetti said. “They all had their moments. Broke some runs and broke some tackles. There were a couple times on short yards we didn’t get it done, but I saw a lot of defensive jerseys in the backfield, too.”

During the Spring Game, Agyei-Obese ran for 52 yards along with Hamilton, who also saw multiple snaps with the first team. A new potential trio in Agyei-Obese, Hamilton and Vanhorse provides options for Cignetti as the new season approaches.  

Contact Catie Harper at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

Pat Summitt, Erin Andrews and Lindsay Czarniak were three names that inspired me growing up. Here I am now at JMU, Czarniak’s alma mater, taking steps to live out my dream. As Pat would say, “I’m going to keep on keepin’ on, I promise you that.”