QB Situation Isn’t Quite Ideal

Inexperienced Quarterbacks Lead JMU

Posted: August 23, 2013

JMU freshman quarterback Dan Schiele works on his footwork during practice Thursday morning. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
JMU coach Mickey Matthews (right) looks at sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong’s passing arm on Thursday.
HARRISONBURG — James Madison has just one quarterback who’s played in a college football game (starter Michael Birdsong), and the top backup is a walk-on true freshman who ran the pass-averse wing-T offense in high school (Dan Schiele).

Not a great situation.

Nevertheless, just over a week before the Dukes’ season-opener against Central Connecticut State at Bridgeforth Stadium, new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike O’Cain seems to be OK with it.

“You never really want to go into a year with a true sophomore and a freshman who’s never taken a snap before behind him. That isn’t your ideal situation,” O’Cain said in his office Thursday after practice. “But, under the circumstances, I feel better about it now than I did coming in because of Daniel stepping forward. I was really concerned because … we did not have a guy that, to be honest with you, I really felt comfortable with as a second quarterback.”

The presumed backup entering the season, Vanderbilt transfer Lafonte Thourogood, has been moved to the defensive backfield.

Now that the No. 2 QB is officially Schiele — a 6-foot-5, 225-pound slimly built right-hander whose only other significant college interest, Schiele said, came from Division III Christopher Newport — O’Cain’s concerns have, to an extent, been assuaged.

“I feel comfortable with Daniel,” O’Cain said. “Now, you don’t want to ask him to go out and win a game for you, but at the same time, I feel comfortable about him going out and running the show and being able to distribute the ball pretty much to the right person on time.”

The quarterback situation leaves JMU — ranked 19th in The Sports Network’s Division I-AA Top 25 poll — with a teeny margin for error.

Birdsong, a hard-throwing sophomore for whom coaches have big expectations, is still fairly inexperienced. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder played in eight games last season, completing 53.1 percent of 77 passes for an average of 59.8 yards per game. He threw four touchdown passes and was intercepted once.

Behind him and Schiele, the No. 3 quarterback is Alex Girvan, another walk-on true freshman from Christchurch.

JMU coach Mickey Matthews said quarterback was a “concern,” but also that Schiele was more than an average walk-on. The Dukes heavily recruited Schiele, who had attended JMU’s camps since he was in middle school.

Matthews said he knew Schiele would be ignored by most colleges because he ran the wing-T at Tabb High School in Yorktown. Schiele impressed the Dukes, Matthews said, with his intelligence — he had a 4.25 grade-point average in high school and plans to be an orthopedic surgeon — his athletic ability and competitiveness.

“We went and watched him play basketball in the winter and we thought he was a really good athlete,” Matthews said. “He could jump, he could run, and you could see how tough and competitive he was. And at that point, we made it a priority over the winter to get him to walk on. … He’s done a nice job, and there’s no question he’s the second-best quarterback on the team.”

Matthews said Schiele earned the No. 2 QB job and it wasn’t a case of him winning by default. Schiele beat out Thourogood, Girvan and Lukas O’Connor. O’Connor, a scholarship player who came from a post-grad program in Connecticut, is now a wide receiver, and Thourogood, who hasn’t been able to throw because of a sore shoulder, is a strong safety.

If JMU needs an emergency quarterback, a likely choice is wide receiver Quintin Hunter, a QB at Orange High School. He played quarterback in the spring but has spent all of preseason practice at wideout.

For Schiele (pronounced Shee-lee), it’s a surprising rise.

“I figured I would be back in the pack, but some guys fells off, and I was working hard,” Schiele said. “So I guess that’s why I got up in there.”

Schiele, like Birdsong, is a big, prototypical pocket passer (he has to space to add about 20 pounds). Schiele probably is faster than he looks — although he said he doesn’t really like to run — and is an accurate passer who’s handled the offense ably.

“Is he ready to go out there and play? No,” O’Cain said. “But he can be a very adequate backup right now, and you would obviously narrow some things down. You wouldn’t take him out there with the whole [offense]. The biggest thing quarterbacks have to learn to do is read a defense and where to put the football.”

It’s possible Schiele could play against Central Connecticut State on Aug. 31, but Birdsong also needs game reps. Birdsong’s experience last year was limited, and he missed the final two games because of an ankle injury. He also missed 10 days this preseason because of an appendectomy, something he considered a minor setback.

“Feel good,” Birdsong said. “Nothing’s bothering me anymore. I feel back to normal.”

O’Cain said Birdsong could have used the time to work on his deep passes, which still lack touch. But, overall, O’Cain said he was pleased with Birdsong’s progress, especially his leadership abilities, arm and physical toughness.

O’Cain, formerly the quarterbacks coach and play-caller at Virginia Tech, said Birdsong could have played at a BCS program. (Birdsong missed a chunk of his junior year due to injury, and I-A schools recruit primarily off junior-year film.)

“No question he could play there,” O’Cain said. “Yeah, he’s got everything. He’s got height, he’s got strength, he’s strong, he moves around well enough. He’s got a really good arm and, like I said, the thing he doesn’t have right now is a little bit of feel of that touch throw. … That’s something you can develop. There’s no question he can play at a higher level.”

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