HARRISONBURG — The philosophy goes well beyond a boost for morale.
“If you’re good enough to play winning football,” James Madison coach Curt Cignetti said, “you’re going to play regardless of where you are on the depth chart.”
Across the field, Cignetti and his staff have no problem involving players, who aren’t starters, in their plans as long as those second-, third- or fourth-stringers have earned the game reps. It was evident in the first two weeks of the season and will be again Saturday when the No. 2 Dukes (1-1) host Morgan State (0-1) for a 4 p.m. non-conference contest at Bridgeforth Stadium.
So far, four running backs, three tight ends, two left tackles and five wide receivers have played regularly when JMU has the ball.
On defense, safeties and linebackers — MJ Hampton, Chris Chukwuneke, Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey and Mike Cobbs — with little playing experience prior to this season are members of the third-and-long nickel packages.
Hampton had six tackles this past Saturday and Tucker-Dorsey had a pair.
“They do it well. That’s why they’re playing,” Cignetti said. “We’re not doing favors for anybody. Mike Cobbs and Tucker-Dorsey are both linebackers that have pretty good mobility, so they’re good blitzers also. And Tucker-Dorsey does a nice job of spying on the quarterback when we’re rushing three and playing two-man, so it’s allowing other guys to stay fresh.”
In the base defense, linebacker Kelvin Azanama learned both the MIKE and WILL positions in order to backup starters Dimitri Holloway and Landan Word at their spots, so that when they need a breather, they can get it. This season, Azanama has eight tackles, which is eight times as many as the one tackle he had last year.
The same idea is appreciated on offense, too, according to Dukes starting slot receiver Jake Brown.
Brown had four catches including a 45-yard touchdown grab in JMU’s 44-7 romp of St. Francis last week and said he benefits when multiple receivers play and are targeted by quarterback Ben DiNucci throughout the course of a game.
“I think we have the most talented receiving group in FCS football, top to bottom,” Brown said. “As you see, all of our guys can play. It’s not just the starting three. We can go eight, nine deep, so just getting everybody involved, everyone touching the ball and opening that up, I think we can do a lot of things in the passing game.”
DiNucci threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns last week.
“You have to be unselfish,” Brown said. “And people try to say receivers are the selfish position, but in our room we’re not at all because we got a lot of different guys that are really good at doing different things.
“You saw Kevin Curry go in the game to run the little jump ball. [Devin Ravenel] and Brandon [Polk] are great at running sweeps. I try to catch bubbles and run routes. [Kyndel Dean] and [Daniel] Adu are down the field with speed. Everyone has their thing that they can use.”
It’s why running backs Solomon Vanhorse, Percy Agyei-Obese, Jawon Hamilton and Austin Douglas continue to each get a share of the carries.
“You see that at running back,” Cignetti said. “Our second year at Alabama we went from 7-6 to 12-0 and we played four running backs the whole year. And if we’re going to run the ball and give the tailback the ball 47 times, then we’re going to divvy up the carries to try to keep ‘em healthy.”
The depth is an advantage for the Dukes and Cignetti is finding different ways to help his team. JMU used 51 players in its season-opening loss at West Virginia and 64 in its win last Saturday over St. Francis.
“When I was first a head coach and we were up 35 points at halftime,” Cignetti said, “we used to snap the ball at one [second on the play clock] from the middle of the third quarter on just to reduce the number of plays to stay healthy because we didn’t have numbers. Here we have numbers, so we can play football.”
The Coaches: These first-year coaches took drastically different jobs this offseason.
Cignetti, who picked up his first victory as JMU coach last Saturday, is 68-27 in his nine seasons as a head coach and took the helm of a program that regularly expects to compete for the FCS national championship.
Tyrone Wheatley wasn’t hired until late February and the Bears didn’t have spring football after failing to meet the minimum standards for the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report. Wheatley has good pedigree, though. He played in college at Michigan and for 10 seasons in the NFL. Then he was an assistant coach at Syracuse before following former Orange coach Doug Marrone to work as his running backs coach for the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars up until taking the Morgan State job. This is Wheatley’s first season as a head coach.
The Quarterbacks: DiNucci continues to show he’s an efficient passer in his second season as the Dukes’ starting quarterback.
His 70.7 completion-percentage rate through two weeks this season ranks ninth in FCS and first in the Colonial Athletic Association. Last year, he completed 68.3 percent of his throws, which was third best in all of FCS.
Morgan State starter DJ Gollatt threw for only 24 yards and was sacked three times in his team’s Week 1 loss at Bowling Green. Gollatt took over as starter midway through last season and was the STATS FCS Freshman of the Week for his four-touchdown performance in the Bears’ victory over Norfolk State to finish the 2018 campaign.
Series History: James Madison won the only previous meeting with Morgan State, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference program.
It was a 76-7 victory for the Dukes on Sept. 2, 1995.
In its history, JMU is 6-2 against MEAC schools with its most recent wins coming in each of the last two years over Norfolk State.
Morgan State is 7-26-1 against schools currently in the CAA. Towson and Albany beat the Bears last season.
Forgetting The Opposition: Cignetti and Brown were clear about where the emphasis for JMU needs to be Saturday — on itself instead of Morgan State.
“This whole week is about us,” Cignetti said.
Brown said: “It’s not about them, it’s about us. You don’t want to take any steps back during a week or against whoever it is. You don’t want to play to the competition level, and I’m not saying Morgan State isn’t a good team because they are a good football team, but we need to get ready to play conference play because that starts up soon. We need to be playing our best football come next week or two weeks from now.”
Areas the Dukes will look to get better on their own include red-zone offense and balancing the turnover ratio.
JMU has scored only five touchdowns in 11 red-zone opportunities. The Dukes also have yet to force a turnover while opponents have benefited from four giveaways.
Not A Concern Yet: A problem JMU probably never thought it’d have to deal with this season is teetering on becoming one.
All-American punt returner D’Angelo Amos muffed a punt in the Dukes’ Week 1 loss at West Virginia, and dropped another, but recovered the ball in time not to give it away last week against St. Francis.
“I think we’ve got to do a little better job of getting our punt returner set where he should be,” Cignetti said. “You know the wind conditions change in a game. It’s hard to say in pregame that we need to line him up here when he’s with the wind or here when he’s against the wind because wind conditions change, and that punt he got the other night [vs. St. Francis], that was a hard one because it was low and not very far.”
When Amos secures the ball, there is no issue. He had a 22-yard return in the same game against the Red Flash. He led the FCS with three punt-return scores in 2018.
Following practice Tuesday, Amos stayed afterward to catch punts with special teams coordinator Grant Cain and cornerbacks coach Matt Birkett watching closely.
“Sometimes you just have to make a good decision about when to get away from it,” Cignetti said. “And, really, you don’t need to take any risks back there in terms of catching the ball because maintaining possession of the ball is the most important thing.”
Don’t Be Surprised If: The Dukes keep to a simple plan of attack on offense.
Cignetti said preparation for Morgan State wasn’t the easiest since the Bears have only played one game and it was a blowout loss to a team with an offensive system very different from the one JMU uses.
“There is a little bit of an unknown from an offensive standpoint because Bowling Green was in a lot of two-tight [ends] with formations into the boundary,” Cignetti said. “It’s not a great tape really for us.”
More Than Anything: As long as JMU’s offensive line and defensive line do what they did last week, Morgan State will have trouble staying with the Dukes.
“Their front seven is the heart of their team, both offensively and defensively,” Wheatley said. “They really get after it. They push the pocket vertical and they just really play well. They play well-rounded disciplined football. Offensively, they’re going to come after you and they’re going to make you stop their run game.”