Weekly Preview: James Madison
Image Credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch
Opponent: James Madison Dukes (0-0, 0-0 Colonial Athletic Association)
Location: Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium (54,000)
Date: Saturday, August 30, 2014
Time: 3:30 PM ET
TV/Radio Broadcasts: Big Ten Network, Terrapin Sports Radio Network
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It’s a new season in Harrisonburg, Virginia and there’s a new head coach in town. After a 6-6 (3-5 Colonial Athletic Association) record in 2013, James Madison fired 15-year head coach Mickey Matthews in favor of Everett Withers. Withers was the co-defensive coordinator for the Ohio State Buckeyes last season, and brings a defensive intensity to James Madison. Much like the Buckeyes, Withers wants to run the football down the defense’s throat and play solid, aggressive defense. It’s unclear how well this strategy will work for the Dukes, but Withers is not lacking for intensity.
James Madison gained two huge transfers in the off-season, and both fit the Dukes’ offense perfectly. QB Vad Lee transferred from Georgia Tech to James Madison this season, and will be the team’s starter. He is a dual-threat quarterback with a big arm who didn’t seem to want to stay in Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack with the Yellow Jackets. Everett Withers is installing a very similar offense to the one run at Ohio State, so Lee will be given the dubious comparison to Braxton Miller.
The other high-quality transfer that the Dukes gained in the off-season was RB Alden Hill, who transferred in from Tennessee. He is a powerful, downhill running back who didn’t see the chance for playing time with the Volunteers anytime soon. The Dukes’ offense will need to feature a strong, downhill running game in order to be successful, and Alden Hill will be given the unfair comparison to Carlos Hyde this season.
It’s obvious that neither Vad Lee nor Alden Hill are on the same talent level as Braxton Miller or Carlos Hyde, but their skill-sets are similar, and they are playing in virtually the same offensive scheme. The Dukes will attempt to run the ball downhill from both shotgun and pistol formations, heavily utilizing Vad Lee’s running ability with the read-option and designed quarterback runs. The key to stopping this offense will be forcing Lee to use his arm, which he rarely had to use when he was playing in Paul Johnson’s flexbone system.
Defensively, Everett Withers has forced the Dukes to make a transition from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme. Withers ran a 4-3 defensive style with Ohio State last season, but cited flexibility in recruiting as his rationale for switching James Madison to the 3-4. He wants to recruit for athleticism, not for size, and he believes that the 3-4 will allow him to take advantage of some of the athletic linebackers in the DMV area. In fact, he is even going to shorter basketball players and convincing them that they have a future as a James Madison linebacker. He believes that he can teach these kids to play football, but he can’t teach them how to be athletic. While this scheme may make sense for the Dukes overall, it may allow them to get beat up on the line of scrimmage against bigger FBS offensive lines.
The Maryland Terrapins enter the fourth year of the Randy Edsall era in College Park this season, and will be playing for the first time in a conference other than the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big Ten Conference brings new opponents and new challenges to the Terrapins, and has also brought a different level of excitement for Maryland football in 2014. The Terps are fresh off of a 7-6 (3-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) record in 2013, Randy Edsall’s best season as the team’s head coach. They’ll be looking for an even better performance in 2014, and seem to have the talent on both sides of the ball to make that happen.
The Maryland offense is returning the highest percentage of production in the country this season, and has only lost two starters from last season (LG De’Onte Arnett and TE Dave Stinebaugh). QB C.J. Brown returns for his sixth season with the Maryland football program, and will have the tall task of distributing the ball to one of the best wide receiving corps in all of college football. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long are the stars of this offense, and both could be first-round NFL draft picks after this season. Long is the team’s starting split end, while Diggs has made the move from the slot to the flanker position. Both are coming off of season-ending leg injuries last season, so time will tell whether or not they start off slowly in the Terps’ season-opener.
The offensive line is the biggest question mark for offensive coordinator Mike Locksley in 2014. Derwin Gray and Damian Prince highlighted a very good recruiting class for the Terps this season, but both are just true freshmen. Gray was able to enroll in the spring, but was unable to win the starting right tackle job. Prince has not picked up the offense fast enough to start at left tackle, and has been moved inside to provide depth at left guard. While the offensive line may not feature many big names, each lineman has solid experience in Mike Locksley’s offense, and work well together. If they can hold their own in the Big Ten Conference, the Terps’ offense should have no problem putting points on the board.
Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart is very excited about his group this season, and with good reason. They only lose two starters, and have good depth at nearly every position. The defensive line features Andre Monroe, who burst onto the scene mid-way through the 2013 season and wreaked havoc in opposing offense’s backfields. Cole Farrand is the anchor of the defense, playing quarterback from his inside linebacker position. He is the most sure tackler on Brian Stewart’s defense, and rarely misses anything that comes his way. Sean Davis is primed for a breakout season at strong safety, and possesses a unique combination of coverage skills and run-support abilities. He is just as comfortable in a two-deep coverage set as he is blitzing off the line of scrimmage. Cornerback is the position to worry about for this defense, as only three players have game experience. William Likely will start at one cornerback spot, while Alvin Hill will take the other starting spot. Senior Jeremiah Johnson will see time in nickel and dime packages. The top three options are very good, but if injuries occur, the Terps would be forced to turn to some very unproven players such as Jarrett Ross or Daniel Ezeagwu.
James Madison Interview
This week, I was able to speak with Matt Jones about the James Madison Dukes. Matt is a James Madison football beat writer for the Daily News-Record. I’d like to thank him for his participation and for his insightful responses.
BSL: James Madison enters the 2014 season with a new head coach and a new mentality. What changes has Everett Withers brought to this team, and how do you believe that will help them this season?
Jones: When Everett Withers took the JMU job in December, he was inheriting a team that went 6-6 in 2013. At his media day press conference early this month, he said he needed to “blow it up”, referring to the team structure former coach Mickey Matthews had built during the 15 previous seasons. So far, it seems like the team has embraced those changes. Throughout the preseason, players and coaches have harped on how close the team has come together, stemming from some tough months in the summer working out. Withers has brought in a few I-A transfers, a young and energetic staff of assistants and a new culture he thinks can turn around what has historically been a strong I-AA team.
BSL: Everett Withers was the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State last season, and always holds a strong defensive mentality. What will the Dukes’ defense look like this season, and who are some players to watch for on that side of the ball?
Jones: Defensively, Withers and defensive coordinator Brandon Staley have installed a new 3-4 scheme, a change from last year’s 4-3 defense run under Matthews. Withers has said that the 3-4 defense allows the Dukes to recruit a more athletic high school prospect, one he feels is better suited to defend today’s spread offenses. As far as how the current roster fits into that scheme, that’s to be determined. Defensive ends like Sage Harold and Ascene Jacques are now standup outside linebackers, while defensive tackle Alex Mosley will shift to nose tackle. Those are big changes just on the line of scrimmage.
At linebacker, MLB Gage Steele is nursing a hip injury, leaving a bunch of young, unproven guys behind him. The group has some potential, but it could be something Maryland looks at as a weakness. In the secondary – which was JMU’s Achilles heel in 2013 – safety Dean Marlowe will anchor the unit. Corner Taylor Reynolds and safety Raven Greene are sophomores who learned by making mistakes last year, but they should be improved in 2014.
BSL: Offensively, it looks like James Madison will run a similar scheme to the one run at Ohio State. What are you expecting from the Dukes’ offense this season?
Jones: JMU’s offense will go as Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee goes. If Lee can make the transition from the run-oriented triple-option to the wide-open spread JMU will run, the offense should be above average. He has looked good in practice, showing off his arm and running the team like a seasoned veteran. He’s got some weapons on the outside (Daniel Brown, Sean Tapley, Rashard Davis), which will take some of the weight off him.
The running backs are deep by I-AA standards as the Dukes bring back Khalid Abdullah, who had a nice freshman season. John Miller, Jauan Latney and Dejor Simmons are all different backs that can do different things, and in the spread offense, I expect JMU to get the ball in a variety of ways.
The offensive line returns just one starter, but I-A transfers Nick Appel (North Carolina) and A.J. Bolden (Toledo) should start and give the group a boost. The line should only improve as they play more snaps together.
BSL: The Dukes gained two big transfers this season, QB Vad Lee (Georgia Tech) and RB Alden Hill (Tennessee). How big is it for this offense to have two big FBS talents in such prime positions to succeed in this scheme?
Jones: Lee is obviously the headliner of the transfers, an athletic QB that can also pass the ball well. He threw too many interceptions at Georgia Tech, but with a dedicated QB coach at JMU and the trust in the coaches to let him pass, he should be improved in that department.
Hill has missed almost two weeks of preseason practice this month with a shoulder injury, so he is a little bit behind in terms of conditioning and practice reps. Early in the season, Appel at left tackle and Tapley at wide receiver will likely be the more important transfers. Withers’ UNC connection (he was the interim coach there in 2011) should help the Dukes.
BSL: Last season, James Madison finished with a 6-6 (3-5 CAA) record, good for 8th place in the Colonial Athletic Association. What are the expectations for this team in 2014, and what would be considered a successful season?
Jones: In an especially deep Colonial Athletic Association, a successful season would be in the seven or eight win range. JMU’s expectations for themselves are higher, purely based on the talented transfers they’ve brought in and a freshmen class that includes a number of players that will play this fall. With Maryland being a three-touchdown favorite, JMU will need to bounce back early, which won’t be easy with a tough schedule.
This week, I was also able to speak with Chris Garman about the Maryland Terrapins. Chris is a Maryland Terrapins beat writer for PressBox. He has been a guest on BSL Radio multiple times, and I thank him for participating in this weekly preview.
BSL: The Terps enter Year Four of the Randy Edsall era in 2014, and are fresh off of a 7-win season a year ago. What are your overall expectations for this team in their first year in the Big Ten Conference, and what would you consider a successful season?
Garman: The non-conference schedule for Maryland is going to be key for the Terps’ bowl bid hopes in 2014. Starting the 2013 season 4-0 helped Maryland overcome some tough ACC losses to secure Edsall’s first bowl bid with the program. The injury bug has created hurdles through his tenure, but this team will have a roster of mostly Edsall-recruited players. If the Terps can be slightly more removed from devastating injuries that plagued them last year, it should be consecutive bowl appearances for Maryland and Edsall. Ralph Friedgen’s return to College Park with Rutgers in the regular season finale could be a deciding game in the Terps’ season.
BSL: This team is loaded with skill position talent, and boasts a Top 5 receiving corps. What impresses you most about Deon Long and Stefon Diggs, and what improvements are you looking for them to make in 2014?
Garman: Diggs’ talent speaks for itself, being one of the most celebrated wide receivers in the Big Ten. His big play capability and elusiveness in the open field makes him a game-changer for the Maryland offense. Long is a great compliment to Diggs, being another guy to stretch the field and provide big plays.
More intriguing for the receiving corps is the third and fourth options in Levern Jacobs and Marcus Leak. With Diggs and Long getting most of the opposing secondary’s attention, Jacobs and Leak are key for quarterback C.J. Brown. Being able to hit these two in obvious passing situations will help keep the offense on the field and put together more scoring drives. The passing game will definitely be the strong suit for the Maryland offense.
BSL: The Terps’ defense looks to be very solid in 2014, with the Front 7 boasting great talent and depth. Who are your biggest players to watch defensively, and who might be a dark horse to look out for down the stretch?
Garman: When looking at the veteran led Terps defense, the front seven is what stands out. Eight of Maryland’s top 10 tacklers from 2013 return this season. Injuries in previous seasons have helped the defense add depth with more players getting game experience. Matt Robinson on the outside of the defense and Cole Farrand in the middle will lead the senior dominated linebacker group. Their athleticism and ability to help the secondary in the passing game is something to keep an eye on through the season.
The secondary would be considered the weakness for the defense, but they also have some game experience there. The dark horse, if you would call him that, is sophomore Will Likely at cornerback. He made strides through last season in the secondary and has the ability to be a much needed shut down corner.
BSL: The cornerback position is a thin one, with William Likely, Jeremiah Johnson, and Alvin Hill the only players with a good amount of FBS experience. How concerned are you about the depth at corner in 2014?
Garman: Their lack of depth is a corner is a concern, especially if they suffer any significant injuries. If healthy, the secondary will make some big plays in games, but they’re stretched thin. Likely has the ability to breakout this season and Johnson can be solid, if he can keep himself healthy. Johnson’s senior leadership on the field will be needed to help the progression of the other cornerbacks. Hill is a guy that will be interesting to see play early in the season. He was stable a year ago, but this Terps secondary will need more out of a cornerback that started just two games last season.
BSL: James Madison is fresh off of a 6-6 season last year, and have a new head coach in Everett Withers. What are your expectations from Maryland’s side in this game, and should we expect a similar result to the 43-10 win over Florida International last season?
Garman: Maryland should have a convincing victory against James Madison. The offense is the most intriguing part about this 2014 Terps team due largely to the passing attack. C.J. Brown has an opportunity to make a bigger name for himself in his sixth season and perform against quality Big Ten defenses. The Terps can use this game as a way to see what kind of production they’ll have for their running backs. They need to have the ability to run the ball and give balance to the offense, not in this game, but throughout the season into conference play.
The defense should shut down the Dukes’ offense for the majority of the game, but could allow some points late in the game. The Terps have the ability to post a similar result to last season’s opener, possibly even exceed it.
Zack’s Keys to the Game
- Control the game – The Terps need to avoid early mistakes that could give James Madison hope in this game. They need to play under control, and trust in their preparation and talent.
- Run, run, run – FCS teams are always at a disadvantage on the lines of scrimmage, so running the football should be a priority for Mike Locksley and his offense. Whether it’s C.J. Brown, Brandon Ross, or Stefon Diggs, the Terps have to be able to run the football all over this James Madison defense.
- Stop Vad Lee – The first order of business for Brian Stewart and his defense should be forcing Vad Lee to give the ball to other players. Whether it’s Alden Hill or one of his receivers, the Terps should not let Vad Lee beat them defensively, especially with his legs.
- Get the backups in – This is a game that the Terps should be able to handle fairly easily. If they play smart and up to their abilities, the backups should be getting a good number of snaps by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. If not, there are bigger problems than playing closer with the Dukes than you should.