High On Birdsong

Rising Soph Undisputed No. 1

Posted: December 12, 2012

HARRISONBURG — When James Madison football coach Mickey Matthews said Friday that Michael Birdsong would be the Dukes’ starting quarterback in 2013 after a promising freshman year, it seemed uncommonly early to declare the QB competition over, considering the pocket-passer’s relatively scant experience.

JMU has four other quarterbacks, two of whom redshirted this year (Ian Fisher and Taylor Reynolds) and another who transferred from Vanderbilt specifically to play QB (Lafonte Thourogood).

But Tuesday afternoon, while driving from Washington to Virginia Beach on a recruiting trip, Matthews reiterated that the job was Birdsong’s to lose — not that Matthews thinks he will.

“We don’t anticipate that. He’s a very competitive guy,” Matthews said. “You never say never with any youngster, but going into spring, he’s our starting quarterback and, unless some unforeseen, catastrophic thing happens, he’s going to be our quarterback next year.”

Birdsong, who found out over the weekend that he had been named the starter, is more cautious as he supplants fifth-year junior Justin Thorpe, who, despite having a sixth season of eligibility, is not returning in 2013.

“It’s not my job yet,” said the strong-armed Birdsong, who completed 53.2 percent of 77 passes for 478 yards (an average of 59.8 per game) and four touchdowns with one interception in eight games (two starts) as a freshman in 2012. “I’ve still got to go into spring ball and do good in spring ball ’cause, if I don’t, Lafonte’s good enough — and any of the guys coming in, they’re good enough to take the spot themselves. So I’ve got to do my thing in camp.”

Birdsong will have the advantage — and not just because the starting job now is his.

Matthews fired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jeff Durden on Friday and said the 2013 offense will be built around Birdsong.

Under Durden, Madison ran a run-heavy spread option offense predicated on a mobile quarterback like Thorpe. Birdsong, although capable of scrambling, is a traditional pocket passer. Matthews said JMU’s 2013 offense will be pass-oriented.

At suburban Richmond’s Matoaca High School, Birdsong ran a pro-style offense, and it’s the style with which he’s most comfortable. He said switching offenses wouldn’t be hard.

“It’s no biggie,” Birdsong said. “I ran a pro-style offense in high school, and if that’s something we lean towards and go to, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Personally, I love being under center. I love taking three-, five-, seven-step drops. … I enjoyed Coach Durden’s offense. It was fun. It was exciting, but I think the under-center, three-, five-, seven-step game is more my game and more where I fit in.”

Birdsong said he was “shocked” to see Durden, who spent nine seasons at JMU, go.

 “I liked Durden a lot, and me and him had grown a lot,” Birdsong said. “We got real close through the last couple months. … I talked to him the day before [he was fired] in his office, had a good talk with him. Talked about grades, life. He’s just a great guy, and it kind of surprised me a little bit, but I know he’s going to go on to do good things, and he’s a hell of an offensive coordinator. He knows offense. He’ll go on to do good things, and he’ll be all right.”

The offense had struggled since the Dukes’ Division I-AA semifinal appearance in 2008, when they averaged 38.1 points per game behind star quarterback Rodney Landers. Since 2009, JMU — which hasn’t had a consistent QB since Landers’ departure — never averaged more than 28.8 points per game and three times failed to average more than 22.2.

When asked if he thought there needed to be a change at offensive coordinator, Birdsong said the offensive struggles were on the players, too.

“I don’t know, because we had the athletes that could run Coach Durden’s style [of] offense,” Birdsong said. “But it’s not necessarily the coaches all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to blame the athletes, you know? Sometimes the line would miss a block, either me or Justin would miss a read, or a running back would miss their hole, so you can’t put it all on the coaches and the staff.

“You’ve got to put a lot of the blame on the players because, if they’re not executing, the offense isn’t going to work, regardless of what the offense is. We can bring in a whole new offense next year, but if I’m not doing my part, the receivers aren’t catching it, the line’s not blocking, everyone’s going to say the same, damn thing next year.”

If Birdsong — who said the sprained right ankle he suffered against Maine is almost totally healed — hangs onto the starter’s job, there’s still the question of the No. 2 quarterback. JMU’s options are Thourogood, who will be a sophomore in 2013, and Fisher and Reynolds, who both will be redshirt freshmen next season.

Thourogood and Reynolds are mobile quarterbacks; Fisher is more of a pocket passer. But neither Fisher nor Reynolds has played quarterback consistently since early in preseason practice. They spent the regular season on the scout team, playing other positions. Thourogood also has issues. Matthews said he’s still limited by hamstring problems that have nagged him since high school.

Matthews said their 2013 roles are to be determined, but all three are athletic enough to play other positions. Vanderbilt moved Thourogood (6-2, 235) to running back before he transferred to JMU last summer. Fisher (6-6, 245) spent a lot of time at tight end and showcased tremendous hands. Reynolds (6-1, 185) bounced between various skill positions, mostly wide receiver and cornerback.

“We’ll see this spring,” Matthews said. “We’ll let the offensive staff watch them this spring. I certainly have some ideas as the head coach.”

 The Dukes also have Mack Spees (6-3, 195), a walk-on who will be a sophomore next season, and Jhalil Mosley, who is coming in from Monticello High and will be a true freshman in the fall.

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