Feb 13, 2013, 12:51 PM EST
Editor’s Note: With National Signing Day officially in the books, over the next three weeks we will talk with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on the teams that they cover. Each day will be devoted to a different program. Today we talk with Matthew Stoss of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record about the James Madison Dukes.
You were there for head coach Mickey Matthews’ National Signing Day press conference. What were your thoughts after seeing the list of signees and then hearing from him?
They really focused on the offensive and defensive line. They brought in a lot of big guys. I think I counted seven guys who are offensive or defensive line. That was a major emphasis for them and they covered it. They got a lot of big guys and a lot of guys who seem like they can move for their size. Being big and having speed are always really good things.
One of the other things that JMU likes to recruit is kids who have space to get bigger. And that was another thing that Mickey emphasized: These kids have room to beef up.
The other thing they focused on was wide receivers with the new offense that they’re going to bring in, which will be pass based and kind of play to the quarterbacks’ strengths. They needed more wideouts. One of their selling points to the receivers during this process was that they would be throwing it more.
The jewel of the class and probably their best kid ranking wise is Brandon Ravenel. He’s a three-star kid who had offers from West Virginia, Boston College, Purdue, Old Dominion and maybe Temple as well. But he seems like the total package. He can run, catch and has athletic toughness.
But I like the class and Mickey likes the class. It has good size and good speed.
What impresses you most about this year’s class?
Probably that they got so many big guys. Big guys are hard to find. And if you’re a good player who’s both big and fast, you’re probably going to a major conference school. It’s just so hard to recruit them. Mickey stresses this all the time, and he’s right. It’s just so hard to find big guys who can move, but it sounds like they did that.
I suppose a problem with big guys is that you never know if they’re going to develop, but this group seems like they’ve got a lot of potential.
What is different about this year’s class as compared to those of past years?
This was the first year that they had to recruit amid major staff changes that weren’t the decision of the staff. They’ve had coaches leave in the past, but not situations where they were let go. Their offensive coordinator is no longer there, and that’s helped lead to them losing their quarterback recruit, Jhalil Mosley, to William and Mary. Other than that, though, it didn’t really have a major effect.
That’s probably the biggest difference this year; they had to recruit after firing some coaches. But it didn’t affect them much because they got what they wanted. The recruiting process itself was just a bit different.
This year’s signing class is comprised of 16 players. Is the coaching staff done recruiting or should we anticipate additional guys signing at this point?
I know they have a couple scholarships to play with. I would think one of those would go to a transfer quarterback; maybe a prep school kid because Mickey mentioned getting a four-year kid. Right now they don’t have much experience at quarterback since Justin Thorpe won’t be coming back. Michael Birdsong is the starter but has only started two games in his career, with his best performance probably coming in an extended relief appearance.
One guy who is presumed to be the backup is Lafonte Thourogood. He transferred from Vanderbilt to play quarterback, but he hasn’t played the position since he was in high school and was hurt all of this past season. He’s had hamstring issues from the moment he got here. So other than him, there are two other quarterbacks in the program. One will probably end up at tight end and the other will likely end up as a defensive back. So they definitely have a need at quarterback.
Mickey also mentioned bringing in another D-Line guy and maybe a cornerback which they need since they graduated some guys in the secondary.
What particular holes were the Dukes looking to fill with this year’s signing class, and how successful were they in accomplishing this?
The line was the big focus. They needed guys there and they got them. I think they also wanted wide receivers. They got some nice complementary guys as well. They got a lot of linebackers last year, but one of the incoming guys, Kyre Hawkins, will be a nice addition. He seems like he could be a sleeper.
Then with Jordan Anderson not coming back and Dae’Quan Scott being a senior, they needed running backs and got two guys. One is Khalid Abdullah, who was the player of the year in a very competitive district in Virginia Beach. So if you could be the offensive player of the year in a district down there, that’s pretty good.
Virginia has always been a boon when it comes to football talent. With 11 Virginians in this year’s class, it appears the Dukes faired very well in recruiting local talent. Has this traditionally been the case?
Yes, JMU usually does pretty well in state. The difference this year is that they didn’t hit Northern Virginia very hard. If you look at their roster, a major chunk of it includes kids from Northern Virginia. The difference this year is that they went back to Virginia Beach. They got six kids from the 757 district, which is so popular on the recruiting trail.
Old Dominion had really hurt them down there by recruiting kids that they may have ordinarily gotten. So going back into Virginia Beach was very good for them because there’s so much talent down there.
JMU has a long tradition of success on the gridiron. What are the factors that have played a role in consistently bringing in such quality talent to campus?
They have stability. Mickey’s been there a long time and a number of his assistant have as well. They have a reputation as well. They’ve won a national title and they’re always nationally ranked. They also have what may be the best facility in the league. When you go to JMU and see the stadium and the Plecker Performance Center, that’s a big selling point for them.
It feels like big-time football here, which is not often the case for other stadiums at this level. I think that’s a tremendous advantage.
At first glance, how do you think JMU’s class stacks up to others around CAA Football?
It’s hard to say because there’s so little coverage of recruiting at this level, but I do feel very good about this class. I have talked with most of the recruits’ high school coaches and with Mickey about them as well. I’ve got a feel for them – for their style, their strengths and what they need to work on.
I will say that I like Mickey’s approach to recruiting late bloomers. So many of the FBS schools are done recruiting kids after their junior year, but if a kid really has a great senior year, FCS schools often have space and there’s the potential to pick up those kinds of kids that other schools whiffed on.
There seems to be quite a bit of buzz around former West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart’s son, Blaine. Can you speak to his signing and what he will bring to the program?
With Blaine you automatically get buzz because he’s Bill Stewart’s son. Of all the kids I talked to who are coming in, he’s probably on the “All Quote Team.” He’s definitely a coach’s son because he speaks so well and handles the media very well.
Mickey described him as a “tweener.” He’s a wideout but not a speed guy. He described himself as a possession guy. Mickey mentioned him as maybe playing tight end if he can get big enough and put on enough weight.
The other thing that I think they liked was that he’s a deep snapper. Those are rare. Having talked to JMU’s deep snapper, it seems like it’s something that is more learned on your own and not necessarily something that’s easily taught. When you find someone who can do that, it’s an added appeal.
I don’t know what kind of player he’ll be. Mickey described him as a great guy to have on the bus. He’s a coach’s son and he’s a good get.
Who else in this year’s signing class stands out to you?
I like Khalid Abdullah. It seems like he has a lot of potential. The cornerback, Raven Greene, is pretty athletic and could be a big help in the secondary. It sounds like he could be a steal. Brandon Brown is a versatile kid and played a lot of positions in high school, including running back, tight end and D-Line. He has a lot of room to get bigger.
On the whole, though, there really isn’t one kid who seemed to stand out a great deal from the rest other than probably Ravenel.
Do you see anyone in this signing class as having the ability to step in and vie for a starting spot in 2013?
Maybe one of the running backs by necessity. They have Dae’Quan Scott and two guys who have yet to establish themselves. The other running back was a redshirt freshman walk-on last year. He is really buff and seems to practice well, but he’s just never played. Dae’Quan doesn’t have a lot of size and isn’t a “between the tackles” kind of guy. He’s had injuries and they need to spread it around a little bit to help him out. So I think one of the running backs would have a chance.
One of the linemen might as well if they’re big enough and have a good spring. There was a lineman who challenged last year, but they ended up not needing him. If one of the freshmen plays, I think it’ll be need based at first unless someone just blows them away.
There has been a lot of talk about the program’s open offensive coordinator position. What might Coach Matthews be looking for in his next OC?
We’re pretty sure it’s going to be Hal Mumme, the former Kentucky coach and Air Raid offense innovator. He and Mickey are really good friends and have known each other since the early ‘80s when they coached together at West Texas State, which is now West Texas A&M.
Mumme resigned three weeks ago from McMurry University, which is a Division III school in Abilene, Texas. We’re pretty confident that he’ll be the next offensive coordinator.
And if he ends up getting the job, then they’ll obviously be throwing it a lot. It’s what Mike Leach runs at Washington State and Dana Holgorsen runs a form of it at West Virginia.
What’s the timeline they’re looking at with the hiring of their next OC?
I think they’ll make an announcement in the coming weeks, especially now that Signing Day is done. I think that hire will be the next thing they’ll deal with.
How would you say the coaching staff changes affected recruiting this time around?
I don’t think it had an impact. If anything, I think the potential changes in the offense helped them. It would have been very appealing to all of the wide receivers. I would think it factored into many of their decisions.
I know it’s early, but what can we anticipate from the Dukes in 2013?
It’ll be an interesting year because they’ve missed the playoffs in three out of the last four years. They’ve put a lot of money into the stadium and have had 6-5 years back to back now. They snuck in the playoffs two years ago with a 7-4 record and missed making it this year. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that they’ve underachieved given the high expectations for this program. So I think making the playoffs will be a factor to watch.
The new offense will be a big deal. I’m interested to watch the transition because they’ve had this one philosophy for so many years and now they’re going to go a completely different direction with the new offense. Everything totally changes with the positions. It’ll be interesting to see how everyone adapts to it and how long it takes for them to figure it out.
They’ve also got to replace a lot of guys in the secondary, although they do bring Dean Marlowe back. He’s a junior and already really good.
But the two main things I’d say to keep an eye on are the playoffs and the new offense they’ll likely be implementing. It’ll be a fun year to watch the program.
What would you say the mood is around Harrisonburg, particularly after Signing Day?
Fan wise, I think they like the class and no one is too broken up that they lost the quarterback to William and Mary. He was kind of a dual threat guy anyway, so I’m not sure how well he would have fit in this potential new offense.
They’re always optimistic around here though because of their reputation and the talent they bring in. Mickey is a good judge of talent. That’s been evident throughout his tenure with the program.
The expectations are as always are. People believe they should be a national championship contender and if they’re not, they’re going to be upset.
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