HARRISONBURG — Everett Withers isn’t interested in projects. James Madison’s new football coach said he wants game-ready recruits who don’t need a lot of seasoning.
JMU on Wednesday announced a class of 13 freshmen – including five two-star recruits, a large number for a Division I-AA program – and it appears they’ll get a chance to play early.
“I’ll tell you this right now: We have no plans on redshirting anybody,” Withers said during a press conference at the Plecker Center. “And here’s the reason why: If we’re doing a good job academically, if we’re taking care of our business in the classroom, we’re going to get guys graduated in four, four-and-a-half years, and we want them to move on so we can continue to have recruiting classes that fill this program.
“… If a guy’s ready to play, we’re going to put him on the field and let him play. We don’t have any, I guess, future plans on starting a redshirting program around here. … We want to be able to sign guys that can come in here and play. If they need to redshirt, we probably don’t need to bring them in here.”
It’s a bold strategy.
Many true freshmen don’t play their rookie seasons, typically because of physical maturity. But Withers, with his first recruiting class as the Dukes’ head coach, has signed players who at least appear to have the talent to make a quick impact.
The five two-star prospects, as rated by recruiting website Rivals.com on a 1-5 scale (with 5 being the best players), are 6-foot-1, 280-pound defensive tackle K.J. Ford from Bluffton High School (S.C), 5-10, 175-pound running back/athlete John Miller from Spring Valley High in Columbia, S.C., 5-10, 180-pound defensive back Jimmy Moreland from Royal Palm Beach High (Fla.), 6-4, 255-pound defensive end Cornell Urquhart from Benedictine of Richmond and 5-9, 180-pound running back Taylor Woods from Havelock High (N.C.).
For a I-AA school, two-stars are a big deal. Many I-AA programs would be pleased to get one or two rated prospects. Withers, however, isn’t interested in recruiting ratings.
“I think stars get coaches fired, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think stars get coaches fired. You go find good football players. No matter what the stars are, you find good football players. I don’t know who on our signing class has stars. I have no idea. I don’t really care. I really don’t. I just want to find good football players.”
Making up the rest of JMU’s 2014 recruiting class — a school official said the Dukes aren’t expecting any more letters of intent, although Withers didn’t rule out adding more recruits later — are 6-2, 220-pound linebacker Kapri Doucet from Bruton High in Williamsburg, 6-3, 225-pound defensive end/linebacker Daniel Ezeagwu from Colonial Forge in Stafford, 6-2, 195-pound linebacker Marcell Johnson from Knightdale (N.C.), 6-2, 200-pound quarterback Rob Nittolo, who has already enrolled at JMU, from Hillsborough (N.J.), 5-9, 175-pound defensive back Aaron Peak from Blythewood (S.C.), 6-3, 230-pound linebacker A.B. Rhodes from Mills Godwin in Richmond, 6-3, 200-pound running back Tyler Thrasher-Walker from Westfield in Chantilly and 6-5, 280-pound offensive lineman Richard Xu from Stone Bridge in Ashburn.
Perhaps the biggest prospect in the recruiting class is a transfer: former Georgia Tech starting quarterback Vad Lee, a 6-1, 215-pounder who will be a junior in 2014.
Withers said no starting positions — including quarterback, where Lee likely will battle 2013 starter Michael Birdsong for the top spot — are set next season. Withers emphasized competition for every job.
“Our objective was not only to spice up the quarterback [position], but it was to spice up every spot on the football team,” Withers said.
JMU signed six players from Virginia — Withers said he wants his recruiting classes to be about 50 percent in-state, but that could vary based on the state’s talent from year to year — and three each from North Carolina and South Carolina, cracking an area that’s been difficult for JMU to mine in previous years.
Withers and his staff are full of Carolina ties, notably Withers and Steve Sisa. Withers is a Charlotte native who coached at North Carolina, and Sisa is former assistant at I-AA Western Carolina and recruited a number of JMU’s recruits first at WCU.
Withers said the Carolinas are part of a larger recruiting area that includes anywhere within a five- or six-hour drive from JMU.
“We’ll try to get the best players from up and down the eastern seaboard,” Withers said. “Obviously, there are some ties to the state of North Carolina. … We’ve got to make sure we do a good job, obviously, in Virginia first. We’ve got to do an unbelievable job of getting the best players that we can get out of the state of Virginia, then being able to branch off to the D.C. area, obviously down into both North and South Carolina and even into Florida.”
Of the 13 incoming freshmen, four — Doucet, Nittolo, Rhodes and Urquhart — are left from Mickey Matthews’ recruiting class. Matthews, the former head coach, was fired in November.
Recruiting coordinator John Bowers said the new coaches inherited from Matthews’ staff a list of about 100 names that did not appear to be ranked. Then, Bowers said, the coaches watched film, determined who they liked and went shopping. They found several other recruits on their own.
JMU hired Withers Dec. 20 and the staff has been complete for only a few weeks, making the recruiting window small. Bowers, a former JMU quarterback, said they did the best they could with the abbreviated time they had.
“We really hit the state of Virginia hard,” said Bowers, who graduated from Madison in 1979. “There were a lot of kids that had a lot of other schools in mind before they got a chance to meet us. We made some people change their minds. Some didn’t, and that’s part of the game of recruiting. The thing we did is we really went out and saw a lot of people in a short amount of time and tried to find out as much as we could about them.”