HARRISONBURG — If recent history is an indicator, something that’s happened only once in the last five seasons at James Madison could happen again this fall.
The Dukes could play with a true No. 1 running back instead of spreading carries evenly to two or three rushers.
“Obviously, you want to have a workhorse guy,” first-year offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery said, “a guy that’s your number one. But to get through a season and to get through a game, you’ve got to have at least two or three that you can play.”
Montgomery served as the offensive coordinator at Charlotte last year and at Youngstown State for the eight seasons before that. In four of the last five seasons, he’s managed offenses that gave one running back at least 40 percent of the team’s total rushing attempts.
The one time JMU did it came in 2016 when former All-American Khalid Abdullah earned exactly 40 percent of the Dukes’ total carries as he set the program’s single-season rushing record with 1,809 yards.
No Madison running back took more than 28 percent of the carries in the seasons since.
“What I’m working on is the amount of reps I can play without getting tired,” Dukes junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese said about his preparation for the upcoming season that kicks off on Aug. 31 at West Virginia.
Agyei-Obese and fellow junior running back Jawon Hamilton said they’re both eager for more playing time at the position after sitting behind upperclassmen last year. If a feature back emerges, it’ll likely be Agyei-Obese or Hamilton. JMU coach Curt Cignetti said redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse is impressing in practice on the heels of a strong spring and that Vanhorse, junior Eric Kirlew and true freshman Austin Douglas are in the mix for touches, too.
But even Cignetti leaned on a dominant back at times in the last half decade at previous stops Elon and IUP, so it’s possible while three or four JMU running backs will play, there’s a chance the starter gets the large majority of carries.
Former Elon running back Malcolm Summers ran the ball 40 times in a 2017 win at Richmond and 30 times in a win the same year over Charleston Southern. Cignetti’s lead back in 2014 at IUP, Luigi Lista-Brinza, had 42 percent of his team’s total carries that season.
“You’ve got to have four guys ready to go,” Cignetti said. “And pretty much in the game if a guy carries it three or four times consecutively, we get the next guy in, so he’s fresh. So I think if you’re running the ball really well, you’re probably going to play three backs.”
Agyei-Obese said he’s been preparing for an increased workload.
“I worked on getting myself mentally focused earlier instead of later and rather than now,” Agyei-Obese said. “I started more in the spring and I was getting my mind right for a bigger role in the offense.
“And I’ve been doing a lot of extra work. I’ve been working with [strength coach Brian Phillips], doing a lot of flexibility stuff to stay healthy and short-yard bursts to help me in my run game.”
The 6-foot, 205-pounder, Agyei-Obese, only took 18 carries last year while Hamilton had just nine.
Hamilton said both him and Agyei-Obese can be impactful regardless of what the pecking order in the backfield is.
“I don’t think me and Percy care about who goes out there first,” Hamilton said. “We know we’re both going to play. And if anything I’m behind him 100 percent and he’s behind me 100 percent, and the same thing with the younger guys. We’re behind them and they’re behind us. We support each other and if anything, that’s the most exciting part.”
Hamilton said he’s readied for this season with the potential bigger role in mind and that Montgomery’s offense requires more from running backs in the passing game than former offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick’s offense did.
“We’re catching it like crazy,” Hamilton said. “But if that’s how we’re going to be used, then that’s how we’ll be used. And in the running back room, we have a lot of guys that are good in space and if you get us the ball, we can do what we do with it.”
Agyei-Obese said he’s had to improve as a receiver out of the backfield because of new system.
“We do screens. We do routes and pretty much everything,” Agyei-Obese said. “And actually this is kind of new to me.
“In high school, I wasn’t much of a pass catcher and then in the old offense I only caught a couple of balls, too, but with this new offense I’ve always got to be ready to catch the ball.”
Agyei-Obese said he’s anxious to show all he can bring to JMU’s offense with expanded responsibilities.
“It’s a big difference, but I’m ready for this year,” Agyei-Obese said. “I’m ready for the bigger role and I’m ready for this season.”