Tough Slate Among Questions
HARRISONBURG — Twelve days before a difficult season opener at Big Ten newcomer Maryland, James Madison’s football team has plenty of issues as it tries to once again become relevant in Division I-AA.
Among them: New coach. New quarterback. Tough schedule.
But while Saturday’s preseason scrimmage was plagued by penalties and mental errors, Everett Withers said the Dukes are right where they need to be heading into his first season as the team’s coach.
“We wanted to see guys that drove and went hard and I think they did that,” Withers said. “We made some mistakes obviously, but there were some guys that showed up and made some plays. We feel like we’re right on schedule and where we need to be.”
Still, the Dukes face lots of questions heading into the 2014 season, which may or may not be their last in I-AA as the university continues to assess a move to I-A – assuming any conference extends it an invitation.
Here are some of the questions:
How tough is the schedule?
Withers won’t be able to coast into his first season on the job. JMU’s schedule – which includes seven away games and back-to-back non-conference dates with Power Five member Maryland and potentially dangerous Lehigh on the road to start the season – will test the young Dukes.
Maryland will be a heavy favorite in Week 1. The Terrapins – the only Division I-A team the Dukes will face – are by far JMU’s most difficult opponent. They finished last season only No. 73 in the Sagarin ratings for all 252 D-1 teams with a 7-6 record, but Maryland is expected to be better than usual this season.
ESPN rated the Terps No. 39 nationally in its preseason power index of 128 I-A teams – in part because of an electric receiving corps that includes former five-star recruit Stefon Diggs, now a junior.
Lehigh has been picked to finish second in the Patriot League – good, but not quite like being picked second in the potent Colonial Athletic Association. The Mountain Hawks finished 8-3 in 2013 and James Madison finished 6-6, but Lehigh’s Sagarin rating was almost 40 spots lower than JMU’s (170 vs. 131), reflecting the strength of their leagues.
After the home opener versus lightweight St. Francis (a 5-6 team last season in the Northeast Conference, though one that almost beat the Dukes), JMU heads back on the road for a Sept. 20 test against Villanova, the Colonial Athletic Association’s second-ranked team in the preseason poll. Quarterbacked by CAA preseason Offensive Player of the Year John Robertson, the Wildcats – who lost to JMU 31-21 last year – will be a tough out for the Dukes, ranked eighth in the preseason CAA poll.
Nationally, Nova is ranked No. 12 in The Sports Network’s I-AA poll.
The Dukes also play No. 13 Towson, No. 19 William & Mary and No. 20 Richmond in Colonial games. A bright spot? They host both the Tigers and Tribe. Another bright spot? JMU doesn’t play the 12-team league’s most consistent powerhouse, No. 4 New Hampshire.
So to answer the question: Very tough.
Who’s the backup quarterback?
James Madison, once again, will start the season with an unproven backup.
Former quarterback Michael Birdsong had nobody – save for a cast of freshmen walk-ons – behind him last season. It’s not that bad this year, thanks to an apparent uptick in talent.
JMU entered the preseason with sophomore Daniel Schiele (last year’s backup) and freshmen Bryan Schor and Rob Nittolo as the contenders, and after two weeks, the battle goes on. Schiele took reps with the second-team during the scrimmage, while Schor came back Monday and got the No. 2 snaps.
“You shouldn’t read too much into guys. ...It’s training camp,” a slightly annoyed Withers said Monday when asked depth-chart issues.
Nevertheless, Schor does come into town with a credential or two: He was initially recruited by I-A Miami of Ohio before the offer was yanked after a coaching change.
Withers said he doesn’t have a deadline for choosing a backup behind former Georgia Tech starter Vad Lee, but the former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator indicated that Schor has an edge.
“We’ve still got competition for the No. 2,” Withers said. “[Schor’s] been up and down, and that’s why they’re 2’s. They’re usually up and down like the rest of them, we just hope we can continue to grow him and get better. He has probably the best upside out of those three guys, so we need to really try and push him and get him going.”
How are the Division I-A transfers doing?
In addition to Lee, North Carolina transfers Sean Tapley and Nick Appel are expected to start on offense, with wide receiver Tapley providing a speed element on the outside and in the return game and Appel securing Lee’s blind side at left tackle.
Tennessee transfer tailback Alden Hill has missed most of the first two weeks of practice with a shoulder injury, but the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder returned Monday in a red non-contact jersey. With sophomore Khalid Abdullah a solid No. 1 tailback, Hill will mix into the rotation along with freshman tailback John Miller and seniors Jauan Latney and Dejor Simmons.
Offensive lineman A.J. Bolden, who redshirted his freshman season at Toledo, looks like he will be the starting right guard.
“Talent-wise, I think he’ll be great,” offensive line coach Brad Davis said. “I think he’s got a great career ahead of him here. But I need him now.”
As for Lee, he’s a I-A guy, and that usually means something. But he’s also in his first year playing in a new system with new teammates. That also means something.
Another I-A transfer of sorts, Withers, also remains a mystery as a head coach. His only experience leading a team was a full season as interim coach at North Carolina in 2011 after Butch Davis was fired. Withers guided the Tar Heels to a 7-6 record.
Among the victories: 42-10 over James Madison.