This week’s out-of-town Q&A features Mike Barber, who covers James Madison for the Harrisonburg Daily News Record.
The CAA is made up of a handful of big towns and a handful of smaller ones. And it’s not a stretch to say there isn’t a paper following that league that provides blanket coverage of a single school any better than the DNR, for both football and basketball.
Anyway, Saturday is the season opener for the Dukes, so there are probably a lot more questions about James Madison than the ones I covered here. You can check out Barber’s JMU football blog here for more on the perennial playoff team from the former Division I-AA.
1. Losing Rodney Landers couldn’t have been fun for the Dukes. How have the two guys who will get a chance to replace him looked in camp?
MB: Drew Dudzik, the junior who backed up Landers last season and played well in the second half of the Dukes’ playoff loss to Montana, knows the offense well, but has played a bit tight this preseason. At times, he seems afraid to make a mistake and holds the ball too long or settles for short passes. Justin Thorpe, a redshirt freshman, has thrown the ball well - especially on deep passes - but doesn’t have the same level of mastery of the offense. Both guys are going to play Saturday.
2. James Madison’s recent history against major-college opponents isn’t all that great, but upsets do happen. Do you think this team is equipped to pull off a surprise like Villanova, William & Mary and Richmond did last weekend, and what must it do to open 1-0?
MB: The formula for I-AA upsets over I-A teams is simple. Don’t turn the ball over. With two new QBs and new tailbacks playing, that could be a tall order for the Dukes. JMU does have some explosive players who can break big plays —- especially returnman Scotty McGee —- and a I-A caliber defensive line. Still, Maryland’s size combined with the fact that the Terps should be plenty motivated after getting handled by Cal, should make it hard for JMU to pull the kind of upsets other CAA teams turned in. Coach Mickey Matthews is 0-5 against I-A teams.
3. Maryland’s offensive line struggled mightily at California, yielding six sacks and rarely giving Chris Turner time. Just how capable are the Dukes of creating issues with their defensive line and linebackers?
MB: The defensive line is the strength of the JMU team. Tackles Sam Daniels and Ronnell Brown are all-conference type players and defensive end Arthur Moats is an NFL prospect. A hot night and some long Maryland possessions would serve the Terrapins well, since JMU isn’t as deep on the defensive line as its been in past years.
4. How much have nagging injuries to wide receivers throughout camp slowed down the offense’s progress leading into the opener?
MB: Sunday night was the first time this preseason that JMU was even close to having all its receivers healthy. Senior Bosco Williams (foot) will miss the Maryland game, and Matthews would rather not burn the redshirt years for his talented freshmen (Dae’Quan Scott and Renard Robinson). The injuries have slowed the progress for the offense and put a damper on the battle for the starting QB job. Still, the Dukes under Matthews have been a run first (and second, and third) team, and that should be the case again Saturday.
5. For fans perhaps not familiar with James Madison’s roster, who are two or three players at any position worth keeping an eye on during Saturday’s game?
MB: Keep an eye on tailback Jamal Sullivan. Oft-injured in his JMU career, the coaches continue him a potential star with his blend of speed and power. Defensive end Arthur Moats is probably the best player in the program, explosive of the edge and bullishly strong. Returner Scotty McGee was the top return man in I-AA football last year. He beat Richmond — which went on to win the national title — with a last-second punt return for a score. He also helped spark a comeback against then three-time defending national champion Appalachian State by taking the opening kickoff of the second half back for a score.
Much thanks again to Mike Barber for taking the time to share his insight on James Madison just days before the Dukes open their season Saturday at Maryland.
—- Patrick Stevens