HARRISONBURG — Vad Lee’s full first name is Lavaedeay, a name the James Madison quarterback said his mother invented. It doesn’t have a meaning, and Lee said he has plans to pick one. He hasn’t gotten around to it yet, but his friends are offering suggestions.
“My best friend said it sounds like a drink,” Lee said. “Pass me that Lavaedeay.”
Whatever that drink may be, the big question after spring practice and entering the 2014 season is will JMU pass that Lavaedeay — as in, name the Georgia Tech transfer its starting quarterback.
In Saturday’s spring game, Lee certainly made a case.
The 6-foot-2, 222-pound junior completed 11 of 18 passes for 149 yards and rushed for 69 yards on six carries, accounting for three touchdowns, to lead his purple team to a 76-51 victory over the gold on a sunny Saturday at a mostly vacant Bridgeforth Stadium.
All stats are approximate because the spring game is just a scrimmage.
Lee said he didn’t know if his performance would give him an edge over junior Michael Birdsong, last year’s starter with whom Lee is battling to start in 2014.
“That’s a hard question because I don’t really want to answer it, but it’s just like, I feel like I took a step. I can say that,” Lee said. “I feel like I took steps. I want to take steps; I want to be good; I want to be great, and I know this coaching staff is looking for me to be great. And today, like I said, I can’t brag enough on the offensive line; I can’t brag enough on the people that made plays — the receivers, the running backs — and I think they made me look really well today.”
Birdsong, who was not made available for comment, completed nine of 24 passes for 112 yards for the gold team. He was intercepted once and struggled with overthrows and receivers dropping balls.
Lee said the QB battle is a good thing.
“It’s a great competition because both of us are starters, and so we obviously feel strong about our game, but it’s going to make both us better,” said Lee, who had a 53-yard touchdown run Saturday. “… It’s not like we have a bad relationship. The team embraced me since Day 1 — and Birdsong also. We help each other out. When we come throw with the wide receivers on our own and stuff, it’s great for us. Getting better each day, pushing each other, that’s basically how I describe it.”
Withers said that, after spring practice, neither quarterback has an advantage heading into the summer and preseason practice. Withers also isn’t in a hurry to name a QB, saying he may not pick a a starter until the day before the season opener. The Dukes’ first game is Aug. 30 at Maryland.
“I think they both did well in the situations they were put in,” Withers said of Lee and Birdsong’s showings Saturday. “I think Vad had a little more skill and offensive-line ability on his team, and I think Michael fought and competed on his team and made a few plays. And I think the thing Michael understands now is he can’t win it by himself; he’s going to need his team to help him. But I think both those guys, throughout the spring, have gotten better and are going into the offseason where they need to be.”
The offense Lee and Birdsong ran wasn’t anything too advanced.
Lee estimated that JMU showed about 30 percent of its new up-tempo, Ohio State-inspired spread, and Withers said the percentage was probably lower than that. What the Dukes showed looked like classic spread, and out of it, Khalid Abdullah rushed for 113 yards on 31 carries.
The tailback, an indefatigable runner, scored two touchdowns to cap what Withers described as a productive spring for the sophomore who played last season as a true freshman.
“I thought Khalid did a nice job today,” Withers said. “The last two or three practices, he’s practiced really well — hard. Obviously, we’ve got to have more backs than what we have right now. Jauan [Latney] did a nice job today. We need a little bit more explosive guy at running back; [Latney] gives us something a little different, a tougher inside runner.”
Abdullah, Latney and Cardon Johnson are, currently, the top candidates to replace Dae’Quan Scott as the Dukes’ primary tailback. Johnson, however, suffered a right foot injury Saturday. By the end of the game, the redshirt freshman was on crutches with his foot in a boot.
Withers said it’s unclear if the injury is serious. Withers also said it didn’t appear there were any major injuries in the spring game, which featured two teams, each with an offense and a defense. Both teams had players that would be considered starters.
Another area JMU needs depth is the offensive line, which lost three starters from 2013. Matt Cunningham and Matt Williams, the O-line’s two returning starters, missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgeries. Withers, though, described the defensive line as the “strength” of the team.
On defense, Withers said the Dukes showcased even less than they did on offense. But it was the first look at JMU’s new 3-4 scheme, which showed, at times, an ability to get to the quarterback and intercept passes — although many of the picks came when Dan Schiele and Rob Nittolo, likely backup QBs, were in the game.
Withers said JMU has all of its offense and all of its defense installed. He also said the spring game wasn’t about running a game-ready offense or defense.
“It wasn’t about plays today,” Withers said. “It was about environment and putting them in that situation.”
Saturday concluded Madison’s first spring practice under a coach that isn’t Mickey Matthews since 1998, and senior safety Dean Marlowe — who sat out the spring game with a sprained knee — said there are major differences between regimes. He said the changes, despite a number of player defections that are common when a new coach is hired, have been well-received.
“It’s not even that just football is different, just, like, the little things,” Marlowe said. “Like making sure that you’re always looking up when somebody is talking. … It’s the little things that [Withers] points out that will affect the bigger things. And I just like that Coach Withers is more of a direct person, and he’ll tell you straight up what’s the problem. That’s something that’s good. He’s just real straightforward, and I love that.”