Apr 24, 2013, 2:30 PM EST
Editor’s Note: Over the course of April and early May, CAA Football will check in with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on their respective teams’ spring practices and spring games. Today we hear from Matthew Stoss of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record. For more on the Dukes’ spring, including recaps, video and photos, visit our CAA Football Spring Ball Central page.
CAAFB: You’ve been following the Dukes all spring. What were some of your observations and questions heading into Saturday’s spring game?
MS: The biggest question was what the new offense would look like. JMU is shifting from a run-based shotgun-option spread to an up-tempo pro-style/spread-ish offense, and Saturday was its unveiling. It was also a chance to see how next year’s starting quarterback, Michael Birdsong, has developed.
CAAFB: We were both on hand for Saturday’s spring game. But for those who weren’t there, would you describe what the environment was like at Bridgeforth Stadium?
MS: Subdued. I’d guess there were 400-500 people there. JMU doesn’t do much to publicize its spring game. For a couple of years, it didn’t even have one. More people would probably show up if the game had some fanfare and was made to be an event.
CAAFB: What were your general impressions of Saturday’s game?
MS: I liked Birdsong. He’s got a really good arm, and the team seems to like playing for him. I also liked the defensive line. On the first play of the “game,” defensive tackle Alex Mosley got in the backfield and would have sacked Birdsong if it wasn’t non-contact.
But it’s obvious JMU is really hurting for a backup quarterback. It looks like the Dukes might add a transfer, but with Birdsong set to be a three-year starter, that could be tough. You have to find someone who is willing to sit. Right now, JMU’s No. 2 is Quintin Hunter, a wide receiver who hasn’t played quarterback since high school.
Early in the spring game, the defense dominated. It forced a bunch of three-and-outs and kept the offense from really doing much. As usual, it looks like JMU should be pretty tough on defense next season.
Getting into some of my other impressions, JMU needs depth/health at running back behind Dae’Quan Scott, who has a habit of getting dinged up. The redshirt-freshman linebackers — Rhakeem Stallings and Gage Steele — had good springs and the Dukes should be solid at linebacker in 2013 behind established starters Stephon Robertson and Titus Till. There were questions in the secondary, but Dean Marlowe has JMU anchored back there, and head coach Mickey Matthews seems really pleased with how Jeremiah Wilson, a Maryland transfer who moved to safety from cornerback this spring, has played. Taylor Reynolds, a QB-turned-corner, is also picking up his new position quickly.
CAAFB: Mike O’Cain was hired as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in March. I know the team’s offense has been on everyone’s minds, so what changes have you observed on the offensive side of the ball since his arrival?
MS: I had been hearing that the new offense was really similar to the old offense, and it is in the run game. The primary differences are in tempo and how much JMU passes.
Birdsong is a pocket passer, and JMU has moved its focus to passing. I don’t think there will be a dramatic shift in the pass/run ratio, but it will probably be fairly balanced. In the past the team has run the ball about 70 percent of the time. My guess is the Dukes throw it somewhere around 55 percent of the time in 2013, although I wonder what impact Matthews has given that he is definitely a run-leaning coach.
The tempo is also supposed to be faster. JMU wants to get plays off in less than 10 seconds and run a lot of no-huddle stuff. There didn’t seem to be much of that in the spring game, but with so many guys hurt and Mike O’Cain trying to evaluate players, I can understand why. O’Cain said that what everyone saw Saturday will be essentially what everyone sees in the fall.
CAAFB: You’ve touched on the starting quarterback situation following the departure of Justin Thorpe this offseason. As you said, sophomore Michael Birdsong will be the starter, but would you comment further on who we might expect to step in behind him and touch on some of the other position battles as well?
MS: There is no backup quarterback. If practice started tomorrow, it would be Hunter because there are no other options. JMU wants to leave him at a wide receiver, and Hunter wants to be a wide receiver.
Another possibility is Lafonte Thourogood, a Vanderbilt transfer who came to JMU specifically to play quarterback. But he hasn’t been healthy since he got here. In the fall, it was hamstring issues. In the spring, it was a shoulder, which prompted JMU to move him to tailback just to get him reps somewhere. Then he hurt his calf. If he can get healthy and stay healthy, he’d be the No. 2.
Or JMU can get a transfer, which Matthews has said he wants to do.
When it comes to the other position battles, JMU returns a lot, so there aren’t many. Backup tailback is the big one though. After Scott, there is Jauan Latney and Dejor Simmons, who both missed the spring with injuries. Then there’s Jainard Crawley-Lambert and Eric Magruder, who moved from safety just because the team didn’t have anyone else at tailback - O’Cain said he’d like to keep him there. In the fall, JMU adds Khalid Abdullah and Cardon Johnson, who are 2013 recruits and may get a chance to play as a true freshmen.
CAAFB: Looking across the positions, then, what do you anticipate as some of the Dukes’ strengths and weaknesses coming out of the spring?
MS: Defense will be a strength, especially the defensive line and the linebackers. A number of D-linemen had good springs, notably Bingham Togia, who is pushing to start at defensive tackle. I also heard good things about Mosley and Brandon Lee. JMU also returns Tyler Snow, who played defensive end and defensive tackle, and Jordan Stanton.
There are a lot of questions on offense. How good is Birdsong? Does JMU have enough depth at tailback? How’s the offensive line minus Earl Watford and Austin Lane, who wrecked his knee on a freak play in the spring and will miss 2013? There’s also the anticipated increased role for the wide receivers. How do they respond? How good are they?
CAAFB: You spoke to this back in February, but what role do you now see the incoming class having on the team?
MS: The running backs have a chance to play early. A few wide receivers might, too. But my guess is that a lot of the freshmen will redshirt. The class is full of linemen, and they take time to develop because the lines are strength positions. What hurts is losing quarterback Jhalil Mosley to William & Mary. He was the only quarterback in the class. I don’t know if he would have played, but given the state of the QB depth chart, he probably would have gotten a shot.
CAAFB: As another follow-up to our conversation in February, have there been any changes in the expectations for the team with its spring schedule now behind us?
MS: I don’t think so. The expectation at JMU is that the football program will compete on a national level every year. The spring hasn’t changed that. The Dukes should be capable of a playoff run in 2013.
CAAFB: Can you give us some insight into Coach Matthews’ take on Saturday, and his team’s spring in general?
MS: He seemed pleased. He thought JMU answered questions in the secondary because of the play of Wilson and Reynolds. But I know he was concerned about the injuries during the spring, which really limited what JMU could do, especially on the offensive end with all the hurt tailbacks. Matthews also liked how Birdsong progressed, calling him one of the “most-improved players” this spring. A couple of the players also said the same thing to me.
CAAFB: What questions still remain in your mind moving forward?
MS: I think we’ve covered it, but this is a critical year. JMU has missed the playoffs three out of the last four seasons and just spent more than $60 million on its football stadium. It would be good if the Dukes made the playoffs and even better if they could make a run.