HARRISONBURG — When Everett Withers leads James Madison into Maryland’s Byrd Stadium on Saturday, it will be the first time in 978 days that he has been in charge of a college football team on game day.
The interim coach at North Carolina in 2011, Withers spent the last two years as the co-defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. The goal, Withers said, was always to get back to being a head coach.
Four days before his first game as JMU coach, Withers seemed confident he has his team ready.
“We’re right where we need to be,” Withers said Monday at the first of his weekly press gatherings at O’Neill’s Grill.
The Dukes – predicted to finish eighth in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association – have embraced Withers’ “New Era” attitude. Practices have been more physical, players are more accountable and the atmosphere surrounding the team seems more businesslike.
“Anytime you bring in a new way of doing things, it’s different for the kids,” Withers, 7-6 at UNC, said. “I thought the kids handled it really well. I think they’ve come out of two-a-days with a lot more confidence and a lot more of a bond as a team.”
After a grueling summer workout schedule and three weeks of preseason practice, JMU has turned its attention to Maryland, which plays its first season in the Big Ten in 2014. Now that the Dukes have settled most of their position battles, the focus is on getting rested for what will be a physical game against a deeper, stronger opponent.
The Terrapins are 22-point favorites against their Division I-AA visitor. If JMU were to beat them, it would be the program’s third victory over a power-conference team, with the last coming in 2010 against a Virginia Tech team that finished the season 10-2.
Withers gave the players Monday off, one day after having what he called “probably one of the best practices that I’ve been a part of at JMU.”
“From where we started back in the spring to where we are now, there’s been a total change in our thoughts, our philosophy and what we want to get done,” Withers said. “I feel like the kids have embraced the system of going really fast on offense. I think they understand that that’s an advantage for us to go really fast on offense.”
The Dukes got through August with no major injuries to key players. Sophomore starting linebacker Gage Steele is still battling a lingering hip injury sustained early in practice, and Withers said his status for Saturday will be determined Wednesday. Tennessee transfer tailback Alden Hill returned to full-contact action a few days ago, Withers said, and will figure into the rotation in the backfield.
In fact, the Dukes now appear to be loaded at tailback. Sophomore Khalid Abdullah, who rushed for 347 yards and three touchdowns behind departed starter Dae’Quan Scott last season, sits atop the depth chart this week, with freshman John Miller and Hill behind him. Seniors Jauan Latney and Dejor Simmons will also play in what figures to be a spread offense tilted slightly to the run.
“We’re going to play all of them,” Withers said. “When you’re trying to go 80-plus plays, you got to play all of your running backs. Between Khalid, Alden, John Miller and Jauan Latney, all of those guys will touch the ball because we’re going 100 miles per hour and trying to get guys in and out of the game. Alden’s done a really nice job of getting himself back. He didn’t miss a guy when he came back.”
Withers did not say any one back would have a specialized role. Although Hill (6-foot, 225 pounds) is the biggest at the position and Miller (5-10, 180) the smallest, Withers said he envisions them all playing the same roles.
“We’re going to roll them as the game plays out,” Withers said. “There’s no goal line guy...we’re going 100 miles per hour. In this offense, there’s no goal-line offense, no third-down offense, it’s run plays. Each guy has to learn all the plays and know all the plays.”
Withers embraces the challenge of playing a I-A opponent like Maryland. In fact, he’s said he wishes the Dukes could play two a season, something they have never done.
Facing Maryland in the season-opener has been on Withers’ mind for a while. He first watched film on the Terrapins in the spring before turning his attention back to his own team this month. When he flipped the film back on Friday, the word he used to describe the Terps’ offense was “explosive.”
“The kids understand that the sense of urgency that we have as a coaching staff and as a group of people coming in new to a program, [coaches] have a big-time sense of urgency,” Withers said. “I feel like our players have that sense of urgency now.”
Players were off-limits to the media Monday, part of JMU’s new tightly controlled policy on access to the football team.
SPECIALISTS: Withers announced his specialists for Saturday’s game. Freshman Gunnar Kane will punt, and junior Connor Arnone will kick field goals.
O-LINE SET: JMU will start senior Nick Appel at left tackle, senior Austin Lane at left guard, senior Matt Williams at center, freshman A.J. Bolden at right guard and sophomore Mitchell Kirsch at right tackle.
D-LINE SHAKEUPS: Freshman Evans Osuji is listed atop the depth chart at defensive end, ahead of returning starter Brandon Lee, who Withers said has been battling a shoulder injury. On the other end of the line, senior Sage Harold is slotted to start at the “Jack” outside linebacker spot, standing up to allow junior defensive tackles Alex Mosley and Xavier Gates to play at the same time.