Behind Enemy Lines: James Madison

Maryland opens its 2014 season Saturday, Aug. 30, against FCS foe James Madison for a 3:30 p.m. bout at Byrd Stadium. In order to gain more insight into the Dukes, who were 6-6 last season, we spoke to Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, Va.) beat reporter Matt Jones.

Maryland opens its 2014 season Saturday, Aug. 30, against FCS foe James Madison for a 3:30 p.m. bout at Byrd Stadium. In order to gain more insight into the Dukes, who were 6-6 last season, we spoke to Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, Va.) beat reporter Matt Jones.

Here’s what Jones had to say about JMU’s 2014 prospects:

Terrapin Times: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question plenty already, but former head coach Mickey Matthews was at JMU for 15 years and led the Dukes to the 2004 FCS title, and now he’s being replaced by Everett Withers, the former co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State and former interim North Carolina coach. How was that transition been and what changes has Withers made since taking over a few months back? Is he a players’ coach or more of a controlling type?

Matt Jones: It seems smooth. Obviously players are going to be high on the new guy, but it seems like they’ve all bought in. All anyone talked about this preseason is how much closer they all are as a group. Then obviously with all the transfers [Withers] has brought in, coming from the Division I-A level and being a former NFL assistant and the interim head coach at North Carolina, he’s able to get these [transfers] to come into the program.

Obviously we only get so much media access, but it seems like the players all do like him. A lot of them call him “Dad,” so I think with Withers bringing the team closer together, combined with the players he’s brought in, the transition has gone well.

As far as the players’ coach/controlling coach, I think it’s a mix of both. I think the players are attracted to his background, and after talking to a few guys they like that he was an assistant in the NFL and a coordinator at a big school like Ohio State. In practice he can be kind of controlling and a taskmaster, but afterwards I talked to guys and they said, ‘That’s what we needed. We needed that kind of tough love.’ Right now no player is going to say a bad word about the guy.

TT: JMU is coming off a 6-6 season and has missed the playoffs in four of the last five years. What’s been the issue after dominating the I-AA ranks for much of the 2000s? Should the Dukes be better in 2014?

MJ: I think under Matthews, it wasn’t anything he did wrong, but I think people tend to get comfortable when a guy has been there for so long. Something you just get too comfortable with what you’re doing and you lose that edge. I can’t say that was the case for sure, but that does tend to happen in the coaching ranks.

With Withers, he’s brought energy and a fresh perspective to the program, so we’ll see if that pays off. Right now he’s already got 10 commits on board, which is an absurd number at this point for I-AA. So the energy is clearly there and the players and recruits seem to be buying in, so now we’ll see if it translates to the field.

TT: JMU is picked to finish eighth in the CAA. Is that a fair spot for them, or can they surprise some folks?

MJ: At CAA media day, just talking to a few league coaches, they were more curious about JMU and what they were capable of. I don’t think [opposing coaches] are going to vote a team high if they’re unsure of what that team can be, and I think that’s why you see JMU picked eighth. I do think, personally, that this seems like a seven- or eight-win team. I think they’re way better than eighth best in the conference and can be right there for seven or eight wins.

TT: How has the transition been to an up-tempo, attacking offense? Have you noticed a more efficient system?

MJ: Before they were more of a feature-back team with a strong running game and a pro-style quarterback. They did try to go up-tempo a little, but it will be a lot more this year. Brining in Vad Lee at quarterback from Georgia Tech, this is the type of offense he ran in high school. It’s based off what Withers saw at Ohio State under Urban Meyer. [JMU’s] offensive coordinator is an Urban Meyer disciple too, and he’s only 26 years old, and he definitely wants the offense running fast.

So whether it’s a running quarterback like Vad Lee was at Georgia Tech, or quickly getting the ball in space to the receivers, that’s what [JMU] is looking to do. They’re still going to run the ball, but it’s going to be a faster pace.

And so far, from what I can tell, it’s looked like a good system. A lot of people are doubting Vad Lee coming from Georgia Tech where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and I’m not football expert, but I think he’s looked sharp. Behind [Lee] there are some questions, and if he gets hurt I don’t think the season is going to go all that well, but right now Vad Lee looks really good, and he’s going to be the guy for the next two years.

TT:The defense is switching to a 3-4, with multiple looks. How has that transition gone?

MJ: I think it’s been good. They’re moving some guys around, bulking some guys up to move down to the inside of the line, and shifting some defensive ends to outside linebacker. And a lot of the guys like that [moving to OLB], because it’s where they played in high school. The secondary was the weak link last year – they were pretty terrible – but they look improved this year. They can’t be much worse (laughs).

They are dealing with an injury to their middle linebacker Gage Steele, who played last year as a redshirt freshman. If he doesn’t play [against Maryland], they’re going to have some trouble at linebacker.

But all in all, the [defense] has the potential to be good. The defensive coordinator was at the Division III level last year, so he’s got some things to prove at this level, but the potential is there with the guys they have in the system.

TT: What’s JMU’s biggest strength right now, and what’s the Dukes’ main concern heading into 2014?

MJ: I think the running game will be good, because sophomore back Khalid Abdullah played as a true freshman last year and he looks like he’s taken another step. Redshirt freshman Alden Hill should get into the mix, and true freshman John Miller also looks good, so they’ve got a few guys they can throw out there to [spur] the running game.

The offensive line, they lost three starters, but a couple [backups] played extensively last year and that should be good too. It’s a Division I-A sized line, and they’ve done well [in camp]. So I think the combination of the talented backs and the offensive line, [JMU] should have a good running game. Vad Lee can do some different things for you at quarterback, but we’ll see how he does as a pocket passer.

For a weakness, the kicking game is a major question mark. No body even knows who those guys are going to be, so it’s a concern. Even Withers has told me [in interviews] he’s not sure who the kickers are going to be, so that could really be a weakness.

TT:Who are the X-factors who could give Maryland trouble? Who are the main playmakers?

MJ: Besides the guys I mentioned [Vad Lee, Khalid Abdullah, Gage Steele, etc.], a guy like [receiver] Daniel Brown, who will be a senior, is a big guy at 6-5, 200, who caught eight touchdowns last year. They’re going to try to get him the ball in a few different ways and let him make plays. I think Brown could really be a guy who steps up for them.

And on defense, a guy like Sage Harold is a senior defensive end who is standing up and playing more outside linebacker this year. He’s a bigger guy for a linebacker [6-4, 235], but he looks good standing up. They’ll motion him around to get him in the best spot, and he’s probably one of their main guys on defense.

TT: JMU does feature two former Terps who transferred out of Maryland in safeties Titus Till and Jeremiah Wilson. How have they looked so far?

MJ: Titus Till is now more of an outside linebacker at 6-2, 215. He’s a down-in-the-box, line-of-scrimmage type of guy, and he’ll be a starter. He’s done good so far from what I could tell. And Jeremiah Wilson, I think he was a running back at Maryland, but he’s playing corner at JMU. [The Dukes] have actually had a freshman corner step up, so Jeremiah Wilson looks like he’ll be a nickel back right now. If Maryland goes with four or five wide receivers, you’ll see Wilson on the field.

TT:I know you’re probably not that familiar with Maryland, but it seems like there’s always a handful of FCS teams that knock off FBS squads every year. How can JMU turn the trick when the Dukes travel to College Park? In other words, JMU wins this game if … ?

MJ: I think Vad Lee will just have to go crazy. There’s no way Maryland should be surprised by Vad Lee, but if for whatever reason he has a huge game running the ball, and [UMD] doesn’t contain him, then he can do some damage. It might take a one-player performance like that. JMU does have some good receivers, and I’m not sure how good Maryland’s secondary is, but I think it’s probably going to take Vad Lee having the game of his life breaking down the defense [with his feet] to keep it close.

If he can do that, and it’s close in the fourth quarter, then maybe JMU can get like a punt block, or something freaky like that, and pull this [upset] off. But mainly it’s going to come down to how well Vad Lee plays.

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