Dukes Seek No. 1A
Pressure Builds At JMU Practice
HARRISONBURG — As James Madison’s first full pads practice was winding down Saturday afternoon, football coach Everett Withers gave a fiery speech to the Dukes with a simple message.
He and the coaching staff will be trying to expose the team’s weaknesses throughout the preseason, and that process is just getting started.
“What we try to do is put the pressure on guys,” Withers said. “We need two-deep at every position; we try to develop some depth. That’s what we’re trying to do. Who’s going to be a starter, but also who’s going to be 1A? That’s what we’re looking for.”
Building depth is the key for the Dukes as they enter the second week of practice leading up to their Aug. 30 opener at Maryland. JMU has a good idea of who many of its starters will be in Week 1, but finding backups will be easier with the Dukes wearing full pads.
“It went OK, we could’ve been a lot better,” said quarterback Vad Lee, the former Georgia Tech starter who completed eight of 13 passes during drills Saturday. “Guys are kind of moving a little slower [Saturday], but certainly the pads make you think a little more because you got someone trying to crash down on you hard. Overall, I thought we finished OK.”
Lee, a novice when it comes to traditional offenses (he played in the run-heavy triple option at Georgia Tech), said the tempo was lacking during Saturday’s team sessions. Lee wanted to turn up the speed, but coaches throttled back the tempo to try to teach some of the younger players.
“I was like, ‘Coach, why are we not going fast?’” Lee said. “I was a bit confused by that because we’re uptempo and we want to go fast.”
Withers said there was a reason for the dialed-back practice. The Dukes are still installing most of their playbook – Lee said he thinks about 50 percent of the plays are installed – and players aren’t going full-speed mentally yet.
“It will improve,” Withers said of the tempo. “It’s early in camp, so we’ll get better. Guys are thinking, so once they stop thinking and they understand installation it’ll get faster and better.
“It looked about like a typical first day in full pads. We’ve got a lot of work to do, getting used to the pads, I think that’s part of this deal, just understanding how we practice. We go hard, we talk about game reps and guys getting used to that again.”
There were several noticeable shakeups on the depth chart Saturday.
Sophomore linebacker Gage Steele, a 6-foot-1, 230-pounder whose 106 tackles ranked second on the team last season, was on crutches during practice. Withers said Steele suffered a hip tendon strain last week and that the Dukes are being extra careful because it’s so early in practice.
“We’re going to take a look at it,” Withers said. “We’re going to be real cautious and careful with him. We’re not interested in rushing him back for anything.”
JMU gave no indication of when it expects Steele to be healed – the opener is just under three weeks away – and the Dukes now need a linebacker to replace him for the time being.
“Our coach says next man up,” senior safety Dean Marlowe said. “Gage is a big factor of our defense and I wish him the best to come back on a speedy recovery. He’s been working hard to do what he has to do. We had linebackers come up and step up with the same verbiage as Gage and come up and be a factor, too.”
Freshman Kyre Hawkins and sophomore Rhakeem Stallings both saw time at linebacker in place of Steele.
Sophomore quarterback Daniel Schiele, who appeared in two games last season, took the No. 2 reps behind Lee. Schiele is battling with freshmen Rob Nittolo and Bryan Schor for the backup job. Withers called the situation “fluid.”
Behind sophomore starting tailback Khalid Abdullah, freshman John Miller got plenty of reps with both the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses. Seniors Jauan Latney and Dejor Simmons also got carries during the team drills. Tennessee transfer Alden Hill – the biggest back of the group at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds – did not practice because he was sick, Withers said.
Lee said he’s been impressed by Miller, a 5-10, 175-pound Columbia, S.C., native.
“John Miller, the running back, is having a great camp so far,” Lee said. “We just got to keep him going and get him physically up to par for a real game and we’ve certainly got the defensive guys to really kick him around, push him around and stuff.”
On the offensive line, North Carolina transfer Nick Appel started at left tackle and senior Erik Buchholz worked with the first group at left guard. Senior Josh Hogan, a defensive tackle-turned-offensive lineman, worked with the No. 1’s at right guard.
“He’s done some good things, so we’re trying to find if he can play one of those guards,” Withers said of Hogan. “We know he can play center. Now we’re just trying to see if he can play guard and create some depth at guard.”