HARRISONBURG — New James Madison football coach Everett Withers said spring practice will be less about installing an offense and a defense (although that will happen, too) and more about establishing expectations for everyone — and he does mean everyone.
Wednesday afternoon, with snow heaped into dirty white dunes around the field at Bridgeforth Stadium, JMU opened spring practice with noise and hustle, and before things got rolling, Withers, with the players kneeling around him, let them, the coaches and the support staff know that it’s assessment time.
“You’re being evaluated!” said Withers, jabbing an authoritative finger at the team, the assistants and even the trainer and equipment manager.
“You’re being evaluated!”
“You’re being evaluated!”
Earlier this week, Withers said a tone would be set. He certainly followed through.
“What I’m more concerned about is our kids understanding what we expect as far as practice — how we practice,” Withers said Monday afternoon in his office. “We have a saying around here: ‘It’s four to six seconds, Point A to Point B, fanatical effort and focus.’ And that’s one play.”
Wednesday was the first time since 1998 that someone other than Mickey Matthews has guided the Dukes on the field. Matthews was fired in November after Madison went 6-6 and missed the Division I-AA playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
JMU hired Withers in December, and he’s spent the intervening months “changing the culture,” which includes everything to how coaches conduct meetings — “There will be a lot of exchange between players and coaches in a meeting,” he said. “There won’t be a player sitting there in a meeting and listening to a coach for 45 minutes” — to gutting the football office décor.
“Anytime there’s transition, there’s also a culture that’s been in a pre-transition state,” said Withers, who spent the past two seasons as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator. “That’s something with the previous staff. I don’t know what was done here. Don’t know how it was done here. All I know is it was 6-6 last year. And I talked to other people in this conference, and they talk about JMU at a high level. They talk about the facilities, they talk about the school being nice, the players being good-looking players, looking athletic, and all I know is it was 6-6 last year. And my thought is: How do you have a beautiful stadium, beautiful campus to recruit to and what looks like good players — maybe not enough of them — but good players and be 6-6? So there has to be something.”
So what’s the problem?
“You come in and you start looking around and you see complacency,” Withers said. “You see some softness and some complacency. And our deal is we wanted to change the culture. Our culture is just do it right. Go to school, go to class, go to tutors, come in the weight room, bust your ass, go to the practice field, bust your ass, go home to sleep. You put in a good day’s work.”
Wednesday was the first time they got to put that culture on the field.
Withers said he wants to have the offense and defense installed by the end of spring practice, which culminates at 2 p.m. on April 12 with the annual intrasquad game.
On defense, Withers is running a 3-4 base because, he said, down linemen are in short supply. JMU ran a 4-3 last season, and Withers said it’s possible the Dukes could do some 4-3 this season. It depends on personnel.
“You go to any level — you go to the NFL; it’s hard to find four down linemen that can really play that you’re going to pay money to,” said Withers, who spent six seasons as a Tennessee Titans assistant. “It’s hard to find those guys that are consistently good players. I think what people can find is those tweener bodies, those guys that aren’t quite big enough to put their hand down all the time but have the ability to stand up and rush from a two-point stance or drop from the two-point stance. … As a recruiter walking around the halls of high schools, I see more of those guys walking the halls.”
The offense seems less defined. Withers said he hopes it will be 50-50 between passing and running (that could change based on the game) and that it will have spread elements, as well as a power running game that still has a home for the H-back/tight end type JMU used often under Matthews. The offense, Withers said, will be as fast as it can be and aim to run more than 80 plays a game.
Withers wouldn’t put a name on the offense but described it like this:
“Pro-style attacking from sideline to sideline,” he said.
Among the biggest questions facing the Dukes this spring is who will run that offense. Michael Birdsong started last season, but Vad Lee transferred over the winter after being Georgia Tech’s QB in 2013. Birdsong and Lee both have two years of eligibility remaining.
Withers said the quarterback job is open for competition — something he wants to be a fixture of that new culture. This includes what he described as a grueling offseason workout program under new strength coach Aaron Burkhart, most recently an assistant strength coach for Illinois’ football team. Withers also has held team tug-of-wars a couple mornings a week.
To combat that observed “complacency,” Withers preaches energy, and to help with that, he’s hired a young staff. Of his nine assistants, four have been a graduate assistant in the last two years. Withers said he wanted a youthful staff for better player relations and to cultivate an energetic atmosphere.
“Sometimes when you get older guys in here, they tend to be not as good with the players as far as the energy part of it,” the 50-year-old Withers said. “I want our players to feel juice every time when they’re in their meeting room with their coaches. I also want guys with creative ideas. ‘The way we’ve always done it’ — I’ve heard that a lot on this campus since I’ve been here. ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ OK, I don’t want to hear that anymore. I want a new, creative, more colorful, jazzy, loud idea.”
He certainly got that across Wednesday.
NOTE: Withers said wide receiver Anthony Rose and offensive lineman A.J. Scott have left the team, and that it was their decision. Both would have been seniors in 2014. Only Scott was a starter.