Mantra: ‘Play Hard’
JMU’s Offensive Line Feeds Off High-Energy Coach
HARRISONBURG — Keeping with the theme of energy and excitement at preseason football practice, James Madison offensive line coach Brad Davis seems to have all the attributes of a person hired to instruct 300-pound men on how to move other 300-pound men.
Every word out of Davis’ mouth sounds like a recruiting pitch to a high school All-American.
“When people watch our film, I don’t want them to say how talented we are or how great of X’s and O’s we got,” said Davis, who will split offensive coordinator duties with quarterbacks coach Drew Mehringer. “I’m really not into that. I want guys to watch our film on Sunday and say, ‘My god, they play really, really hard.’ If we can accomplish that, we’ll be where we want to be.”
Davis was able to distill that explanation into one phrase.
“Play hard as hell,” Davis calmly repeated six times during an interview.
While Davis said he’s more focused on effort when the Dukes open the season on Aug. 30 at Maryland, JMU’s offensive line has potential to be one of the best he’s coached, he said.
Senior center Matt Williams and senior guard Matt Cunningham are the only two returning starters on the line, although neither went through spring practice after having offseason shoulder surgeries. Right now, Davis expects junior Wray Fucci and senior Austin Lane to start at tackle and sophomore Mitchell Kirsch to play guard.
“In the last five or six years, this is probably the most talented group of men that I’ve had in one room,” said Davis, an assistant at Portland State for the past five seasons.
The Dukes allowed 31 sacks in 12 games in 2013, good for just 88th in Division I-AA. They lost three starters: Scott Jones and Josh Wells, to graduation, and A.J. Scott, who left the team before spring practice.
But JMU replenished the depth chart with a pair of I-A transfers – Nick Appel from North Carolina and A.J. Bolden from Toledo – two players Davis thinks can provide instant competition. Josh Hogan, a senior who played defensive tackle in 2013, has moved to the offensive line to back up Williams at center.
“You look at those guys and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to find a role for these dudes,’” said Davis, a 2003 University of Oklahoma graduate and member of the 2000 Sooners national championship team. “There’s going to be a lot of competition. Our guys aren’t going to roll the ball out there and just go through the motions. Josh Hogan is a senior, Nick Appel is a fifth-year senior and that’s a great position to be in.”
Davis, 34, is the third different position coach coaching the fourth different offensive scheme for this class of seniors, taking over for veteran assistant Curt Newsome, who is now the coach at D-III Emory & Henry.
“[That’s] really unique,” Davis said of the instability. “They’ve learned four different schemes now. That can be a challenge or a hurdle if you make it one.”
Davis’ connection to JMU coach Everett Withers started in 2008 at North Carolina, when Davis was an offensive line graduate assistant under Sam Pittman, the former offensive line coach at UNC who is now the O-line coach at Arkansas.
Pittman is widely regarded as one of the best recruiters in the country, a well-known high-energy coach who forms a close bond with his players. It appears some of that rubbed off on Davis.
“He truly cares about us and he wants to get to know us on a personal level,” said Lane, who missed the 2013 season after suffering a knee injury last spring. “It’s more of a connection that he establishes with us, which is awesome. I feel like I can talk to the guy, whereas previous coaches not as much. I can go in and have a conversation with the guy anytime I want about anything, not even about football.
“When you have somebody that cares about you like that, you trust that they know what they’re doing for you on the field and they’re going to yell at you and put you through hell, but in reality it’s for your best interest and they care about you at the end of the day.”
The Dukes plan to run an Ohio State-based uptempo spread offense, an attack that routinely snaps the ball 80-plus times per game. To adjust for that, the line needs to be in tip-top shape. The Dukes averaged 75 plays per game last season, but the tempo wasn’t always fast-paced. JMU changed week-to-week based on the opponent, while Withers wants the Dukes to be fast every game.
“It’s awesome that he’s played the position before, he played at a high level, he knows what we’re going through,” Williams said at the Colonial Athletic Association media day in Baltimore. “He knows what it feels like, how to handle it.”
Davis’ 2013 offensive line at Portland State averaged 295 pounds, while his projected 2014 JMU starters average 298 pounds. The players will look about the same, but Davis’ coaching style is a change from what the Dukes are used to.
Of the 16 offensive linemen Davis has at his disposal – he said eight or nine have the ability to start on Saturdays – no two are the same. So he coaches them that way.
“Coach Davis is more of a get-it-done coach, he’s able to adjust to different players depending on their body types and depending on how they work,” Lane said. “[Davis] says, ‘As long as you can get it done, I’ll teach you how to do it correctly.’ If you can get that block and be successful with it, he goes, ‘I’m going to be happy with that.’ He’ll teach, but he leaves you some leeway.”