James Madison unveiled the wrinkle in a March matchup with William & Mary, and then the Dukes kept displaying it when they wanted to as the spring went along.

Their three-tight end set provided them a powerful look at the line of scrimmage and gave them a variety of ways to succeed out of the package because of the versatility the group maintains.

All of the tight ends on JMU’s roster are back, so the depth of the unit should give third-year coach Curt Cignetti, offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan and tight ends coach Grant Cain the ability to use their tight ends however they’d like to again.

Here’s a closer look at the position group heading into preseason practices:

Returning Starters: r-senior Clayton Cheatham

Other Returners On Roster: sixth-year senior Noah Turner, r-junior Drew Painter, r-freshman Hunter Bullock, r-freshman Kelly Mitchell

Newcomers: freshman Zach Horton

Departures: none

Position Coach: Grant Cain (third season)

Synopsis: His healthiest season in purple and gold translated to his most productive this past spring when Clayton Cheatham emerged as the do-it-all tight end for JMU. He was used in a traditional tight end role with his hand in the ground at the end of the line of scrimmage, in fullback and H-back jobs, too. Cheatham was asked to block and catch the ball, and he did both really well while helping the Dukes reach the FCS national semifinals.

Cheatham’s 12 receptions for 164 receiving yards were both single-season bests for the Mechanicsville native. Two of his catches also went for touchdowns.

He’ll enter the fall atop the depth chart at the position, but if Cignetti and the Dukes continue using more than one tight end on the field at the same time, those behind Cheatham will get plenty of playing opportunities like they did last season, too.

Former North Carolina transfer Noah Turner played in seven games during his first season at JMU, and showed his ability to catch the ball later in the campaign. He had two catches for 45 yards against Sam Houston. His 41-yard snag against the Bearkats was the longest reception by a JMU tight end all season. He also had a 29-yard catch against Richmond.

Fourth-year junior Drew Painter made five starts this past spring and excels mostly as a blocker. Painter, who began his time at JMU as a defensive tackle, has become dependable over the past few seasons on offense. He was the understudy to former Dukes starter Dylan Stapleton in 2019, and then was a regular fixture alongside Cheatham during the spring.

Ex-Hidden Valley standout Kelly Mitchell saw some action this past season, appearing in four games in his first season with JMU. Hunter Bullock hasn’t seen any game snaps since arriving in Harrisonburg prior to the 2019 campaign.

Zach Horton, a two-way menace in high school for Lord Botetourt and Northside while thriving as a defensive end and tight end, comes to JMU after earning scholarship offers from 19 other programs. When he was being recruited, he said then he developed a strong relationship with Cain.

Contact Greg Madia at 574-6296 or gmadia@dnronline.com

Follow Greg on Twitter: @Madia_DNRSports

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