Just over a year ago the Dukes’ were driving to tie the game against their rival, the North Dakota State Bison, in the FCS Championship- a game played in front of a capacity crowd at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas and a record TV audience on ABC.
A goal line interception ended JMU’s season that day. It was a classic matchup that will be talked about for years and featured multiple NFL bound Dukes and two sure fire 1st round draft picks from the Bison.
To say that a lot has changed in the world since would be an obvious understatement. The Dukes return to the field tomorrow to start what will be an unconventional “Spring“ season (Morehead State pays Harrisonburg a visit) which will culminate with a Championship game in Frisco again- this time in May.
JMU is expected to once again battle North Dakota State for the Championship despite some roster attrition. It’s what college football fans have come to expect from the Football Dukes, one of the best mid major non Power 5 programs in all the land. For JMU it will be next man up and the depth of their roster will certainly be tested. Aside from Running Back where the Dukes return a stable in the backfield (starters Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton, battering ram Latrele Palmer, and the versatile Solomon Vanhorse) the other position groups will have some new starters including Quarterback where 5th year Senior Cole Johnson will finally get his chance to lead the offense. If you had to choose position groups where you have experience on a Curt Cignetti led team it would be the aforementioned Running Back group along with a stout Offensive Line that returns NFL prospect Liam Fornadel. Cignetti’s Dukes love to run the ball and they should have no trouble gashing opposing defenses and controlling the game each week this Spring. Playing off the run Cole Johnson will have plenty of targets to throw the football to including Wide Receiver Devin Ravenel and Tight End Drew Painter. As is often the case with the Dukes’ program there is a balance of high level athletes who chose JMU out of high school and some key transfers as well. On offense that’s WR Scott Bracey a grad transfer from Duke who could have a Brandon Polk like impact and Kris Thornton in the slot who joined JMU from VMI. On the Defensive side of the ball the Dukes are anchored by two Seniors who have switched positions. Mike Greene has moved to the edge of the line to help replace NFLers Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka. Wayne Davis has moved from the spur to his natural Safety position and will quarterback the secondary. The defense is buoyed by some rising stars in Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey at Linebacker, Tony Thurston at Nose Guard, and Que Reid at Safety. Transfers provide depth on the interior in Antonio Colclough (Temple) and Mason Cholewa (UCF) and a difference maker at Cornerback in Greg Ross (UNC). Curt Cignetti puts a big focus on special teams dominance and this is where the depth of the Dukes roster shines through. Key personnel returns at Kicker (Ethan Radke) Punter (Harry O’Kelly) and Kick Returner (Solomon Vanhorse) to help the Dukes control field position. The expectation in Harrisonburg and among football fans is that despite the layoff, the off cycle season, and the new starters at key positions, the Dukes will continue to do what they have done the last several years- win and win big. While the depth of the program will be tested, it will be next man up for JMU and anything less than a Championship will be viewed as a disappointment. That’s where JMU is as a program and it transcends coaches, players, conference, and level.