Many JMU supporters were disappointed after JMU couldn’t bring home a second straight National Championship last year after losing to the Duke’s newest rival in North Dakota State 17-13 in Frisco. However, it’s hard to be upset after Dukes put up an undefeated regular season, boasting some gaudy numbers along the way, even in the playoffs against stiff competition. The Dukes return a number of key starters on both sides of the ball, but make no mistake, they’re losing a number of key leaders. That all being said, Mike Houston’s squad should be expected to win the CAA title for a fourth season and make a deep run into the playoffs as a top 8 seed.
Key additions and losses by position: JMU did get bit by the senior bug a bit following their 14-1 national championship runner-up season. However, they return a decent number of players on offense and defense to still make a run at a third straight national title appearance.
QB: Gone is stud QB Bryan Schor which is without a doubt the biggest loss for the Dukes. Schor broke the record for most TDs thrown in JMU history and most passing yards in JMU history as well while proving he was a leader on the offensive side of the ball. Schor lead the Dukes to two 14-1 seasons as a starter and a national championship in 2016. But he’s gone to training with the Chicago Bears and now the Dukes must turn to Sophomore Cole Johnson, who spent a season behind Schor last year. The kid has the talent but is greatly unproven on the college stage and is said to still be very raw. The other option for the Dukes is Junior Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci who, while having more experience, has more INTs thrown in his 2 college years than TDs. I’d personally give the edge to DiNucci but I believe the two will share some of the play-calling duties on the year.
RB: Another slight area of concern for the Dukes is in the back field. Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharpe, and Cardon Johnson getting a majority of the load as the Dukes again will use multiple backs as they have for the past many years. While Marshall finally broke out a bit in the playoffs, he had injury issues as well. Trai Sharp is a consistent performer and Cardon Johnson is returning from a season-ending injury last year will be the Dukes main power back. But at times during the regular season, the Dukes struggled out of the back field and relied too heavily on Schor to bail them out with his arm. With Schor gone, The Dukes will need to have a consistent running game if Johnson or DiNucci don’t perform near Schor’s standards.
WR: One of the strongest areas for the Dukes is in their wideout position. While big time players like Terrance Alls, Ishmael Hyman, and John Miller are gone, UVA transfer David Eldridge and playoff-standout Riley Stapleton will be big targets for whichever QB is on the field for the Dukes. Ezrah Archie and Hunter Etheridge sghould also get more looks in the passing game.
TE: A big area of concern is in the tight end position where fan-favorite Jonathan Kloosterman graduated and leaves a big hole for Clayton Cheatham to fill. Cheatham is also following in the footsteps of his bigger brother Dean Cheatham who was also a TE for the Dukes. Younger brother Clayton will be a sophomore and if he’s as good as his brother, JMU will be fine, but that’s still to be determined.
OL: The Dukes return most of their Offensive Line from last year but the loss of Aaron Stinnie will be felt. Tyree Chavious and E.J. Donahue will be returning to what will be a young OL for the Dukes.
DL: CAA Defensive player of the year Andrew Ankrah and defensive stalwart Simeyon Robinson will be other biggest losses for the Dukes along with Cornell Urquhart. The defensive line is young and will be the major difference for the Dukes. If the DL can get pressure in the back field, the Dukes will again be a major force to be reckoned with on defense. But the line will be almost all underclassmen and will need to grow up fast to compete with some strong OL’s in the CAA.
Linebackers: Brandon Hereford and Kyrie Hawkins have both graduated and both were clogged up the middle of the field with the best of them. Much like the DL, the LBs will be young and hungry but unproven and will need to at least meet expectations for the Dukes to be stellar on defense again.
S/CB: What was the scariest group in FCS football last year gets a bit weaker this year. Safeties Jordan Brown and Raven Greene and Corner backs Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland were lethal in every aspect throughout the year and had over 30 INTs between the two of them. While Moreland and Robinson return for their senior years, Greene and Brown are gone. But a new crop of safeties have come in to prove themselves and no doubt the Dukes should be strong in defending the passing game once again.
Game Preview and Predictions:
Week 1: 9/1- @ NC State- The Dukes kickoff the 2018 season in Raleigh, NC at Carter-Finley Stadium to face the Wolfpack. The Dukes have won 2 of their last 3 meetings against FBS foes with wins over SMU in 2015 and ECU last year with the loss coming at the NC State’s crosstown rival UNC in 2016. While 2 wins over FBS teams looks nice on paper, ECU and SMU are not strong programs and the Duke’s win last year at ECU was not particularly surprising. However, a win over NC State would be far more surprising. The Wolfpack are coming off a 9-4 season with a big win in the Sun Bowl and wins over a couple rank opponents. The Dukes will hang around for a bit and I would imagine they’ll put up a couple TD’s but don’t expect a win here as the Wolfpack should pull away in the end.
NC State win 43-17
Week 2: 9/8- @Norfolk State- A bit of a surprise when the schedule came out to see the Dukes traveling to Norfolk State. The Dukes usually open the season playing two easier squads at home as warm-up games but the venue shouldn’t make much of a difference. JMU put up 75 on the Spartans at home last year and nearly set the school record in offensive yards in a game. The Dukes should have no trouble putting up big numbers again.
Dukes win 54-10
Week 3: 9/15- Home vs Robert Morris- The Dukes open up Bridgeforth in week 3 to face the NEC foe Robert Morris. This will be the first of only five home games for the Dukes on the season, a low mark considering the usual 6 game home slate. The Colonials have only won eight games in four seasons and shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the Dukes. Expect a blow out for the home opener.
Dukes win 48-7
Week 4: 9/22- Home vs W&M- The Tribe of William and Mary come to town foe the Dukes’ second straight home game as JMU opens CAA play. Jim Laycock and his staff had to endure a torturous season last year after going 2-9 and winless in conference play. The long-tenured manger hasn’t endured a season like that in, well, ever, but his teams usually give the Dukes some fits. JMU coasted by the Tribe last year 46-14 but don’t expect this one to be nearly as much of a blowout. Still the friendly confines of Bridgeforth should prove the difference to continue JMU’s unbeaten home win streak.
Dukes win 31-17.
Week 5: 9/29- @Richmond- The Spiders will host the Dukes in the State’s capital in the teams’ earliest calendar meeting in a quarter century, The long-time rivalry has featured some memorable games and this year shouldn’t be any different. Both starting QBs are gone from last year’s game and while on paper the Dukes are a deeper squad, Richmond is battle tested, hungry, and knows how to win big games. Expect this to be one of the better contests of the year in the CAA.
Dukes win 34-31
Week 6: 10/6- Home vs Elon- JMU returns home for Family Weekend to face the Phoenix of Elon. Elon are still the “newcomers” to the conference and have never beaten JMU nor have they even come that close. They were the surprise of the conference last year, finishing 3rd and making the playoffs while being ranked #20 in the nation. But the Dukes breezed right by them in the final game of the season. The Phoenix are young and raw and I expect they’ll build on their impressive season last year but I wouldn’t expect the Dukes to have any issues especially at home.
Dukes win 31-13
Week 7: 10/13- @Villanova- Another tough match-up for the Dukes who have to travel to Pennsylvania to face the Wildcats. This is around the time each year when the Dukes will either decide to be a championship caliber team, or peter out. While the Cats only finished 5-6 last year while missing the playoffs and were destroyed on ESPN Gameday by JMU last year this may still prove a tough game. Villanova brings a good football crowd and they’ll want to be the ones to knock off JMU. Will they do it? Not quite. Expect a low scoring affair.
Dukes win 20-13
Week 8: BYE- and a perfect time to have a BYE before 2 conference defining match-ups
Week 9: 10/27- Home vs Stony Brook- The Dukes missed having to face the other fairly new newcomers to the conference last year. But the two teams were 1 and 2 in the CAA standings and met in the second round of the FCS playoffs in Harrisonburg. The Dukes would win that battle fairly comfortably in the end but be warned, the Seawolves pack a strong defensive punch and are on the rise and if they can keep JMU’s offense in check, this may go their way.
Dukes win 24-20
Week 10: 11/3- @New Hampshire- Alright on paper this appears to be the match-up of the season. UNH is a perennial playoff team and made it to the National Quarterfinals last year. They bring back a host of starters from last year and the game is in New Hampshire where I imagine the game will be about 4 degrees (okay exaggerating a little but you never know). While I don’t agree UNH is a #3 ranked team they’re definitely top 10 and will give the Dukes a run. If this were last year’s team I’d say the Dukes win. But a cold night at UNH is where the Duke’s 2 and a half year run of CAA wins will come to an end.
UNH wins 27-17
Week 11: 11/10- Home vs Rhode Island- After a daunting run of games, the Dukes return to Bridgeforth for their final home regular season game as they’ll take on the Rams from Rhode Island. The Dukes massacred the rams by 35 last year and despite URI not finishing dead last in the CAA last year (which if you follow CAA football, you know is surprising) they still won’t pose much of a threat.
Dukes win 55-7
Week 12: 11/17- @Towson- The Dukes finish their season on the road in Maryland to face the Towson Tigers. The Tigers were a middle of the pack team last year, finishing 5-6 overall but should have plenty of familiar faces for the Dukes to contend against. Look for it to be close for a bit before the Dukes pull away.
Dukes win 38-20
I’m predicting JMU to finish the year 9-2(7-1) with the loan important loss to UNH looming. This is definitely a optimistic outlook based off of the last few seasons. We have no idea what the Dukes will get out of the QB position and another big question is how will the Dukes fair in the trenches on both sides of the ball. If all goes according to plan or expectations are exceed, JMU could run the table in the CAA again. UNH may not be the team experts think they are. But with the three toughest games all being on the road, the Dukes could also finish 5-3 in conference and have to deal with a first round game as opposed to getting a bye.
Final Thoughts: To be quite frank, the Dukes were lucky to make it to the semifinals last year and I don’t see them getting by the quarterfinals this year. This team does not have the same talent we as the JMU community have adored the past two seasons and the CAA is better than it was last year.
I could hear all the frustration in the Weber State game last year because the newest of JMU fans aren’t used to losing as they haven’t seen a home loss in 2 years. JMU should defend Bridgeforth as it has for the last half decade, but another undefeated regular season (even if you forego the probably loss at NC State) is unlikely. That all being said, Mile Houston has instilled a new mindset, a new breed in Harrisonburg and it’ll stay that way for some time to come.
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