When Jake Brown hauled in a 71-yard catch for his first career score against Richmond, JMU Nation saw a glimpse of its future.
When Kyndel Dean went diving into the bushes that surround Zane Showker Field for a touchdown grab, the future was once again on display.
On a team that was relatively young last season, the wide receivers return most of their stars and are set for a dominant season. The unit lost only one player to graduation and returns every athlete that recorded a touchdown.
Players like Brown and Dean have stepped up during spring practices, while other big names have been sidelined. Rising redshirt senior Riley Stapleton and rising redshirt sophomores Ezrah Archie and Daniel Adu have all seen limited reps while battling injuries.
“Well, a lot of them are not practicing right now,” head coach Curt Cignetti said. “Kyndel Dean has really stepped up, stepped up in the scrimmage … Jake Brown has been out there every day, he gives you everything he’s got.”
While there are players currently unable to leave an impact on the practice field, the experience is still there and will still be present in less than five months when the Dukes take the field to play FBS opponent West Virginia.
Last season, JMU had four wide receivers haul in 20 or more receptions, and of that group, the top three — Stapleton, Dean and Brown — return for the 2019 season. The same trio also combined for 1,779 yards and 14 touchdowns.
If the almost 2,000 receiving yards aren’t enough, the combination of Stapleton, Dean and Brown also averages 12.16 yards per reception and 47.74 yards per game. If healthy, JMU’s ability to return its top three receivers will set the offense above its competition.
“I think it’s going to be huge — just game experience,” Brown said. “Knowing what it’s like out there in that environment, no one really knows what it feels like till you’re out there.”
The in-game experience isn’t the only advantage the Dukes’ receiving core will have next season. With so many players returning, the familiarity is there. Even though there's a new coaching staff that’s brought a new playbook, when Brown gets set for plays next season, it’ll be the same guys around him.
Only losing David Eldridge after last season gives JMU the luxury of not having to fill numerous holes on top of learning an entirely new offense. Eldridge led the team in yards per reception, but with him sitting behind Stapleton, Dean and Brown in total yards, yards per game and touchdowns, the burden of losing him isn't as great.
“We all know each other from last year,” Brown said. “There’s no one really that new, and we all gelled really well last year. Those guys are great, and we all hang out outside of football, so it’s never been an issue gelling together.”
Brown and the unit’s friendship away from the game is something he thinks will distinguish JMU from its competitors this season. While some teams may only spend the majority of their time together on the football field, the Dukes set time away from the game to bond.
This past winter break, Brown was down in North Carolina where his dad lives. While there, he paid a visit to Dean, who’s from the state, highlighting that this team doesn’t just spend time together inside the Harrisonburg City limits.
“We’re tight,” Brown said. “I can call up any of those guys. I mean, over Christmas break, I went down to Winston-Salem … hung out with KD ’cause he’s from there, and we’d go play basketball. … So, I think that camaraderie, you want to play that much harder for your teammates because that’s your brother, that’s your guy.”
Back on the field, the Dukes have continued to gel and learn the new offense throughout the spring. Many of the current players in the wide receivers room only knew former head coach Mike Houston and have been tasked with learning Cignetti’s coaching style.
Through almost a month of practice, the learning is done. The new terms have become familiar, and the bond between players and coaches has begun to strengthen.
“We talkin’ to each other more,” Dean said. “At first, everyone was trying to learn the offense, but now that some people know the offense, they’re helping others with the offense, trying to make sure everyone’s comfortable with what we’re doing on the field.”
Individually, Dean sees room to grow after a breakout season that saw him solidify himself as a top receiver in the CAA. After recording 614 yards off 47 receptions for five touchdowns, the receiver wants to make sure every aspect of his game is as good as possible.
“In my game, I’ve got to get my hands stronger, let the ball land,” Dean said. “I’m pretty good at routes, getting open, [but] I just got to make sure I focus all the way on short passes.”
With the Spring Game this weekend, the Dukes are set to test out some new pieces, while older, more experienced players are ready to continue polishing their games. While most of the focus during the game and heading into the summer will be on the battle for the starting job at quarterback, the receiving core is ready to be a standout unit for the 2019 season.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.