Opponent Preview: James Madison

Maryland opens its 2014 campaign against FCS foe James Madison at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at Byrd Stadium. Here’s a look at where the Dukes, who have a new head coach in Everett Withers (formerly a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State and the interim head coach at North Carolina), stand heading into their bout against the Terps:

Maryland opens its 2014 campaign against FCS foe James Madison at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at Byrd Stadium. Here’s a look at where the Dukes, who have a new head coach in Everett Withers (formerly a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State and the interim head coach at North Carolina), stand heading into their bout against the Terps:

2013 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Everett Withers (first year)
Offensive System: Spread, Multiple (Balanced)
Defensive System: 3-4 (Gap Control)
Offensive Starters Returning/Lost: 4/7
Defensive Starters Returning/Lost: 8/4
Specialists Returning/Lost: 1/2
Scoring Offense: 28.2 points per game (eighth in CAA out of 11 teams)
Rushing Offense: 172.6 yards per game/4.0 yards per carry (sixth in CAA)
Passing Offense: 234.4 yards per game (fifth in CAA)
Total Offense: 407 yards per game (seventh in CAA)
Scoring Defense: 24.1 points allowed per game (eighth in CAA)
Rushing Defense: 98.6 yards allowed per game (first in CAA)
Passing Defense: 252.2 yards allowed per game (ninth in CAA)
Total Defense: 349.8 yards allowed per game (fourth in CAA)
Turnover Margin: -6 (last in CAA)
Third-Down Conversions: 39.2 percent (seventh in CAA)
Opponent Third-Down Conversions: 38.9 percent (seventh in CAA)
Sacks: 39 (third in CAA)
Sacks Allowed: 31 (13th in CAA)
Penalties: 61.8 yards per game (Last in CAA)
Time Of Possession: 28:55 (eighth in CAA)
Red Zone Offense: 34-for-42, 24 TDs (fourth in CAA)
Red Zone Defense: 33-for-42, 25 TDs allowed (sixth in CAA)

Quarterbacks

James Madison graduated Michael Birdsong, a pro-style quarterback who completed just over 60 percent of his throws for 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Though he did well in spurts Birdsong, had his share of troubles and finished eighth in the CAA in pass efficiency and threw more than a couple untimely picks.

In his place steps Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee (Jr., 6-2,215), who Maryland actually faced back in 2012 when he was a redshirt freshman. Tech ended up knocking off the Terps that day, 33-13, though Lee only threw two passes, completing one for 26 yards. He did, however, rush 12 times for 64 yards and two scores.

And indeed, it’s his feet opposing teams have to worry about. Last year for the Jackets Lee totaled 513 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, though he only had a long of 21. Lee lost a fair amount of yards due to sacks, so his rushing average was a miniscule 2.8 yards per tote, but he has the motor and moves to make things happen in the open field.

Passing the ball is a different story. Lee only completed 45.6 percent of his throws for 11 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, and was among the least efficient quarterbacks in the ACC.

If Lee struggles or is injured, JMU doesn’t exactly have many other viable options. None of the backup quarterbacks have separated themselves during fall camp, including transfer Bryan Schor (6-2, 205), a freshman from Miami of Ohio who has solid upside potential. The only other triggerman who has thrown a pass during an actual game is Daniel Schiele (So., 6-5, 224), who is 0-for-4 throwing in his career.

Running Backs

The Dukes lose the conference’s fifth best rusher in Dae’Quan Scott, who ran for 1,040 yards and eight touchdowns last year. But they do have at least three runners the JMU has high expectations for vying to take his place. Sophomore Khalid Abdullah (5-10, 195) is the feature runner, and in nine games in 2013 he totaled 347 yards and averaged a robust 5.1 yards per carry. Abdullah is a one-cut, downhill runner with enough speed to burst by a defense, so he’s dangerous. Meanwhile, much is expected of talented Tennessee transfer Alden Hill (Fr., 6-2, 220), who had just 10 totes for the Vols but should get plenty of opportunities at JMU.

Look for the quarterback Lee, along with Abdullah, to receive the bulk of the carries, though the redshirt freshman Hill is a burly grinder off the bench and a good complement to Abdullah.

Receivers

James Madison graduated a pair of starting wideouts, but the Dukes bring back one of their most dangerous offensive threats: Senior Daniel Brown (6-5, 220). A big, physical wideout with deceptive speed and athleticism, Brown can make plays out wide or in the slot. JMU plans to get him the ball in a variety of ways and let him go to work. Last year he caught 42 passes for 665 yards and eight touchdowns, while his 15.8 yards per catch average ranked eights in the CAA.

Teaming with Brown is a talented transfer from North Carolina, senior Sean Tapley (6-1, 185). Tapley caught just 17 passes last year, but he totaled 219 yards, and the year before he grabbed 26 balls for 361 yards and five scores. Yet another transfer, freshman Ishmael Hyman (6-0, 180), comes over from Kansas and could be a possible potent field stretcher.

Sophomore Brandon Ravenel (5-11, 165) had four starts in 2013, meanwhile, and is coming off a 20-catch, 312-yard campaign. Senior Dejor Simmons (5-8, 190), who doubles as a potent return man, moved from running back to receiver and could be a key situational slot man.

Offensive Line

JMU only returns two of five starters along its offensive line, but maybe the Dukes needed some fresh faces up front. After all, this group allowed 31 sacks last year, one of the highest totals in the conference, while the running backs averaged just a respectable 4.0 yards per carry, which ranked in the middle of the CAA. The current group, though unproven, is a FBS-sized line, and reports are the group has really jelled during fall camp.

Senior guard Matt Cunningham (6-3, 295) and center Matt Williams (6-3, 290) are the two returning starters, and Williams is considered the cerebral anchor of the unit. Those two will be flanked by a combination of tackles Austin Lane (Sr., 6-5, 310), Nick Appel (Sr., 6-6, 310), Wray Fucci (Jr., 6-6, 300), Eric Buchholz (Sr., 6-6, 300) and Mitchell Kirsch (So., 6-5, 295), and interior linemen Matt Frank (So., 6-4, 290) and A.J. Bolden (6-4, 290). Lane is a former Syracuse transfer who missed 2013 with an injury, but is back and ready to claim one of the top tackle spots in 2014. Appel is a transfer as well, coming over from North Carolina to man the other tackle position, and he’ll fill an immediate need too. The guard Bolden transferred in from Toledo, though he’s still just a freshman and working into the rotation,

Though the bulk of the O-Line did not start in 2013, a couple saw significant field time rotating in. Last year JMU’s linemen mainly used a zone-blocking scheme that did fairly well, at times, at opening lanes for the backs. The key, though, will be keeping Lee upright and healthy, which may not be a walk in the park considering the Dukes’ new quarterback is still adjusting to becoming more of a pocket passer. For a line that struggled with opposing edge rushers last year, and is working in two new tackles, having a developing signal caller who may take an extra second to get the ball away doesn’t exactly bode well.

Defensive Line

The defensive-minded Withers is switching to a 3-4 this year, which means some of JMU’s edge rushers will be shifting to outside linebacker. But three main trenchmen are returning from a squad that stifled opposing running games (98.6 yards allowed per game) and contributed plenty to the Dukes’ gaudy 39-sack total. At CAA media day, Withers said his defensive line is perhaps the strength of the team.

Junior defensive tackle Alex Mosley (6-3, 290) played all 12 games in 2013 and tallied 40 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Mosley has stood out plenty during fall camp and will anchor the line. Likewise, senior edge rusher Brandon Lee (6-2, 260) has made plenty of progress, and Withers likes his potential this year. And junior end/outside linebacker Sage Harold (Jr., 6-4, 230), who missed a handful of contests in 2013 and still managed 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, is expected to step up in a big way in 2014. A converted defensive end, he has a quick first step, and drew praise during fall camp for his rushing and edge setting.

To boot, JMU is bringing in Kansas State transfer Xavier Gates (6-3, 316), a senior defensive tackle who will contribute as a rotational player. Gates would probably be starting if JMU still ran a 4-3, and will undoubtedly see starter’s minutes in 2014.

Linebackers

The linebacker corps will miss two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Robertson, for sure, but this is still a talented albeit young crop. They’re known as sound tacklers who get downhill and don’t allow much leaky yardage. Withers, a defensive ace, should put them in even better position to succeed should they make a smooth transition to the 3-4.

But while there is potential here, sophomore inside linebacker Gage Steele – who tallied 106 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks last season, and is on all the preseason CAA First-Team lists -- has been dealing with an injury. Word is he might not be available for Week 1 against Maryland, a significant blow if true. Steele is the quarterback of the defense, and without him in the lineup JMU’s backer unit becomes rather suspect.

That said, outside backer Titus Till (Sr., 6-2, 215), a Maryland transfer, has been a standout this offseason, and racked up 62 tackles and three tackles for loss last year. He will be a key cog in the defense, and he’s expected to take another step in 2014. Junior Ascene Jacques (6-3, 225), another defensive end convert, had 29 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and ascends to a starting role this year.

Many of the inside linebackers, besides Steele, are either freshmen or veterans who haven’t played a significant amount. Freshman Kyree Hawkins (6-1, 195) is atop the depth chart, earning the starting nod with his play this August. But sophomore Rhakeem Stallings (6-1, 215), junior Marzae Brooks (5-11, 225), and sophomore Jake Marten (6-2, 225) all figure to vie for action, and freshman Tom Joyce (5-11, 215) may see the field as well. Especially is Steele is out for an extended period of time.

Defensive Backs

This unit had problems in 2013, ranking 13th in the CAA in passing yards allowed per game and finishing among the worst squads at the FCS level. Withers has shaken things up, however, and is taking a chance by starting a freshman at cornerback, Jimmy Moreland (5-10, 180). Moreland has been highly impressive during camp and separated himself from the returning veterans, many of whom have been relegated to nickel and dime duty.

The other corner figures to be returner Kwe’shon Williams (So., 5-9, 160), who had 54 tackles and three picks in ’13, but gave up his share of big plays. He’s quick but undersized, and teams with bigger receivers have taken advantage in the past. Sophomore Taylor Reynolds (6-1, 190) started seven times last year and had two picks. He should see a significant amount of time as a safety, nickel back or third corner. Meanwhile, sophomore Raven Greene (6-0, 185), who had five starts and recorded 37 tackles in 2013, should be rotating in as well. And senior Deandre’ Smith (5-10, 195), a converted receiver, started nine times last year and will undoubtedly get in on JMU’s sub-packages.

At safety, senior Dean Marlowe (6-2, 205) may be the most reliable performer in the secondary. A third-year starter, he had one interception last year and is one of the “name” defensive players in the CAA. Marlowe is considered a draftable NFL prospect, so he’s being relied on to lead the defensive backs this year.

Former Terp Jeremiah Wilson, who had 35 tackles last season, was listed as a starting safety, but we’ve been told he’s been relegated to dime duties. The starting strong safety is technically Titus Till, though he’s now considered an outside linebacker with safety duties. Freshman safety Zoauntarrious Brunt (6-4, 175) may see time rotating in at that strong spot if he continues to develop.

Specialists

This is a primary area of concern for the Dukes after kicker Cameron Starke graduated. JMU has yet to identify another prime booter during camp, as freshmen Jonathan Jerez and Kevin Weiman have been inconsistent, while presumed starter Ryan Maglio hasn’t set the world on fire. This game doesn’t figure to come down to field goal kickers, but the lack of a reliable specialist might force JMU to attempt more fourth-down conversions and the like.

The Dukes do return their punter, junior Connor Arnone, who averaged 39.4 yards per boot and placed seven kicks inside the 20 yard line in 2013. But Arnone ranked ninth in the CAA in punting last season and has battled inconsistencies this offseason.

As for the return game, senior Dejor Simmons (5-8, 190) is back after averaging 24.4 yards per and scoring a touchdown last year. He’s a diminutive speedster who has the potential to be a major weapon if given a lane. And JMU’s punt returner, senior Dean Marlowe, who doubles as a safety, averaged 7.4 yards per bring-back last year, which ranked fourth in the CAA.

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