HARRISONBURG — For the first time in their careers, they’re all in line to take the field at same time.
“When you’re out here practicing, you need it,” James Madison tight end Clayton Cheatham said this past March after one of the Dukes’ spring sessions. “Everyone gets reps, so it’s easier on everyone.”
Cheatham’s position group is as healthy as it has been since before he arrived on campus as a freshman ahead of the 2017 season.
He’s no longer dealing with the torn UCL tendon in his thumb or the fracture in his foot that he had to play through last year. Nick Carlton is long removed from the season-ending knee injury he suffered in 2017 and some of nagging injuries that kept him out of games last year.
Add in Dylan Stapleton, who did nice job stepping into the starter’s role for eight games after Cheatham went down, and JMU has three players with starting experience at tight end on the roster heading into training camp. Here’s a closer look at those three and the rest of the position group at Madison:
Returning Starters: senior Dylan Stapleton
Other Returners On Roster: r-junior Nick Carlton, junior Clayton Cheatham, sophomore Drew Painter
Newcomers: freshman Hunter Bullock
Storyline: If the position group remains healthy, it’s likely first-year JMU coach Curt Cignetti and tight ends coach Grant Cain assemble some packages to feature multiple tight ends on the field together.
During the spring, Cignetti even acknowledged it’s something he wants to do this season.
“I’ve been pleased with that group and I think it can be a strength,” Cignetti said then.
And after all, if Cignetti does want the Dukes to lead the Colonial Athletic Association in rushing this fall, which he’s also said, one way to boost a power running game includes using an extra tight end for blocking purposes.
Plus, an opposing defense would probably have problems trying to matchup with two of the big-bodied, but athletic pass-catching tight ends.
Stapleton made 19 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown in his debut year at JMU following two seasons at Division II Slippery Rock. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder showed he has the skill set to haul in tough catches and the strength to block well at the FCS level, but he’ll have to earn his starting job again with Cheatham and Carlton both healthy, and Painter off an impressive spring after sliding to the offensive side from defensive tackle.
Cheatham, a former high school quarterback, proved he’s a reliable red-zone threat in his first college season when he hauled in four touchdowns two years ago for the Dukes. And Carlton can catch the ball, too. He had a touchdown grab in JMU’s 2017 season-opening win at East Carolina.
As for Painter, who made the transition smoothly this past spring, Cignetti said he believed Painter has a good future ahead on offense. Bullock enrolled early and participated in spring drills, which is always advantageous for a true freshman, but with four older players ahead of him, he goes into camp as a candidate to redshirt.