HARRISONBURG — Inexperience should no longer be an issue.
The group of offensive linemen James Madison brings back for 2019 is more seasoned than the one it brought back for its 2016 national championship campaign.
Dukes offensive linemen Zaire Bethea, Liam Fornadel, Raymond Gillespie, Jahee Jackson and Mac Patrick have combined to start 86 times in their careers, with Patrick’s 28 being the most.
Though the title winning squad’s offensive line became an elite unit of five, it only brought back players combining for 49 career starts while former All-American tackle Mitch Kirsch’s 25 career starts going into his senior year were less than what Patrick has entering his.
Here’s a closer look at JMU’s veteran offensive line as training camp nears:
Returning Starters: r-senior Jahee Jackson, senior Mac Patrick, r-junior Zaire Bethea, r-junior Raymond Gillespie, junior Liam Fornadel
Other Returners On Roster: r-junior Joe Fishpaw, r-junior J.T. Timming, r-junior Truvell Wilson, r-sophomore Will Clevinger, r-sophomore Jake Glavin, r-freshman Nick Kidwell, r-freshman Kyle Smith, r-freshman Henry Schroeder
Newcomers: freshman Tanner Morris
Storyline: The task for first-year Dukes coach Curt Cignetti and offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski isn’t figuring out whether or not the five linemen mentioned above can play.
They’ve all proven themselves.
Last year, Fornadel was a second-team All-Colonial Athletic Association choice and Patrick was a third-team all-league selection. In 2017, Jackson was a second-team All-CAA member.
So, Cignetti and Wroblewski can use August to sort out how those returning starters best fit together this year and whether or not any younger players are talented enough to crack the first team, or at least reliable enough to qualify as a trustworthy backup.
The biggest hole to fill is the one Tyree Chavious, who started 12 times at right guard last season, but departed the program earlier this summer, leaves behind. It’s why assessing who fits best where is most critical for the coaching staff.
The last time JMU took the field in its second round FCS playoff loss at Colgate this past December, the unit started – from left to right – Gillespie, Bethea, Patrick, Chavious and Fornadel.
But there are few candidates from the five with starting experience who could bounce around if asked to do so. Fornadel has played in games at three different positions during his time with the Dukes. Jackson, who was suspended for a violation of team rules in the middle of last season, has started at right tackle, left guard and right guard. And former coach Mike Houston once said he believed Bethea was versatile and could play all five positions across the front.
Patrick is likely locked into center, a spot he hasn’t left since coming off the bench as a true freshman in JMU’s 2016 FCS national semifinal win at North Dakota State. Gillespie, at 6-foot-5, 254 pounds, is probably only a tackle.
The easiest move to make would involve simply sliding Jackson into Chavious’ vacated right guard spot. But if one of the other four fit better there or Wroblewski assess a lesser experienced player like 6-foot-5, 319-pound Nick Kidwell, who was fantastic this past spring as the first-team left tackle while Gillespie was out with injury, is ready for game action, then the Dukes could move in another direction.
But that’s for the coaches to make decisions on.
Regardless of how it all transpires, a mature offensive line should only aid anything JMU wants to do on offense. If Cignetti wants to lean on the running game, he probably can since this group will expect it.