One Man’s Injury...

JMU Backups Get More Attention

Posted: August 12, 2014

HARRISONBURG —With the injury report growing by the day, James Madison football coach Everett Withers prefers to look on the bright side. Most of the ailments are not season threatening, so Withers doesn’t have to find new starters, and – this is the really bright side – he’s getting a chance to check out potential backups.

Sophomore linebacker Gage Steele, who again missed practice Monday with a hip tendon strain, is expected to be back by the Aug. 30 opener at Maryland. Sophomore cornerback Taylor Reynolds sat out with a hip flexor and should be back soon, and Tennessee transfer tailback Alden Hill is rehabbing a sore shoulder and is expected to be back in the coming days.

Withers has a close eye on who’s filling in for those players.

“We feel like we’re training some depth at those spots,” Withers said. “Sometimes, injuries allow you to do that.”

 The Dukes continued their second week of practice on an overcast Monday, and more and more backups are being pushed into starting roles, at least temporarily.

At linebacker, freshman Kyre Hawkins and sophomore Rhakeem Stallings as well as true freshman Brandon Hereford have all seen time with either the first or second group during drills, getting more snaps with Steele on the sideline.

“I know what Gage Steele can do, so I’m trying to make sure we provide our football team with some depth at that linebacker spot,” Withers said.

Withers talked in the spring about practicing with increased energy and effort, and so far it looks like the Dukes are following through. JMU completed its second of seven planned two-a-day practices, more than the Dukes did in the past.

“We try to take competitive reps as much as we can, meaning game reps; we’re trying to do things like we’re going to do it in the game,” Withers said. “There’s some contact, there’s probably more contact than these guys have had.”

At tailback, sophomore Khalid Abdullah appears to have a firm grasp on the starting spot, but the backup job is likely to be split among senior Jauan Latney, true freshman John Miller and Hill when he returns.

Abdullah rushed for 347 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman last season as a backup to then-senior starter Dae’Quan Scott (1,040 yards). Latney rushed for 221 yards in 2011, 92 in 2012 and just 71 last year as he lost most of the season after dislocating a knee on Sept. 14. Hill rushed for 58 yards on 10 carries in 2013 at Tennessee.

On Monday, just four healthy tailbacks participated in practice.

“It’s frustrating because you want to see those guys out here be part of the team and compete,” said quarterback Vad Lee, who went 11-of-19 with one interception in Monday’s passing drills. “We know they’re working their butts off to get back healthy and I’m excited for those guys when they get back.”

Withers said he feels good about the tailback situation right now, even with the sparse numbers. The attrition has given players like Miller increased reps.

“It obviously gives John Miller a chance to get some reps and it’s helped him a ton,” Withers said. “Hopefully that’s a good thing and it provides us more depth.

Miller, rated a two-star back by Rivals out of Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., played on the same team as Christian Miller, the No. 1 rated outside linebacker by ESPN, who signed with Alabama in February.

Miller is not big – he’s listed at 5-foot-10 and just 175 pounds – but if he can stay healthy, his upside appears to be substantial for the Division I-AA Dukes.

“He really has [impressed]. He understands the offense as much as he can as a true freshman coming in,” said Withers, noting that Miller is likely to see time on special teams. “Obviously, the little things that running backs don’t think they have to do, he has to learn to do. He has to learn to be in protection versus blitzes and versus four- and five-man rushes. It’s not all glamour at that running back spot.”

NOTES: Withers said the Dukes are still in the process of looking for a kicker and a punter. The Dukes did not practice kicking or punting Monday morning, but Withers said he is “still concerned” about both positions…Freshman linebacker AB Rhodes out of Richmond sat out Monday’s practice with a knee injury. Withers said the 6-3, 230-pounder will be evaluated Thursday and that surgery is a possibility…The Dukes brought in a crew of officials for Monday’s practice, their main purpose being to police the full team portion of practice. The highlight of the day was a diving interception by cornerback Jeremiah Wilson after safety Dean Marlowe tipped a Lee pass… One big difference between the Mickey Matthews era and the Withers era is media access so far this preseason. Almost all of Matthews’ practices were open to the media and most players were allowed to talk to reporters. Under Withers, practice will be open three days this week and the university selects which players will be made available to the media.

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