This is the time of year when the four-man force must show its strength.
“It should and it has up until this point,” James Madison coach Curt Cignetti said.
Cignetti’s decision to prioritize a consistent rotation of running backs instead of a defined, stubborn pecking order throughout the fall has the Dukes primed at the position to last through the final stretch of regular-season games and into the postseason, according to the coach and junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese.
Agyei-Obese along with junior Jawon Hamilton, redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse and freshman Latrele Palmer have shared carries fairly evenly throughout JMU’s season.
“It keeps more of us fresh,” Agyei-Obese said, “especially late into the season like we are now. So, it helps us now and it’ll help us later on, too.”
Of the four, Agyei-Obese has earned the most strenuous workload, but none of the backs on the Dukes’ roster have accounted for more than 27.8 percent of the team’s rushing attempts. That’s the mark for Agyei-Obese, who tops JMU with 594 rushing yards and nine rushing scores, through nine games. The other three are all below 20 percent of the team’s carries with Hamilton at 19.6 percent, Vanhorse at 17.4 percent and Palmer at 8.7 percent.
Agyei-Obese has the highest average for carries per game with 13.1 per contest.
“None of ‘em are carrying the ball 20 times a game right now,” Cignetti said. “And those hits add up. I’ve been there before where guys did carry the ball 20-plus times every single game, so their bodies feel good at this point and that’s a plus.”
The lone rusher to miss anytime was Vanhorse, who was out for the Oct. 26 win for JMU over Towson. But after the bye week, he’s practiced this week and Cignetti said Vanhorse should play Saturday against New Hampshire. Kickoff against the Wildcats is set for 3:30 p.m.
“The one thing you can’t control as a coach is injuries,” Cignetti said. “You can control a little bit based on how you practice, but there’s a lot of variables outside of your control there, too. So they’re all fresh and ready go. Vanhorse looks good this week. He’s ready to go.”
And how well the four feel is a conversation the four running backs have had regularly, Agyei-Obese said.
They’ve all had their standout moments in games, too. Agyei-Obese had 111 yards and a score against Towson, but has also compiled four multi-touchdown games. Hamilton sprinted past the Stony Brook defense for a 55-yard scoring run as part of a 105-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Seawolves. Vanhorse scored the team’s first touchdown of the year at West Virginia. Palmer had the 69-yard touchdown run to help the Dukes separate from Villanova.
“We talk about how we still feel fresh,” Agyei-Obese said. “We’re definitely fresher than we’ve felt the past couple of years also, so it’s helping everyone in the room and everyone is pretty pumped up about it.”
Agyei-Obese said this energy him and his fellow rushers have right now in regards to the end of the season is very much how they feel about the fourth quarter from game to game. Leaning on Agyei-Obese and Hamilton to carry the ball nine times over the final 6:30 against Towson, JMU was able to run out the clock to seal the victory.
“What’s good about that is we like to run a lot of tempo at the end of the game because we know the defense is tired,” Agyei-Obese said. “But we’re used to that and we can rotate backs, too. It’s another fresh back against a tired defense and then another fresh back, another one and another one. It’s very good against the defense at the end of the game.”
He said he believes it’s something the offense can maintain into the final three weeks of the regular-season slate.
“I think that can keep on happening,” Agyei-Obese said, “and will continue to happen just because of the committee we have and just because of our mindset of running the ball. We’re focused on running the ball, we take that to heart and we like to be definitive about it.”