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Spring Practice Starts With A 'Loss'
HARRISONBURG - The start of spring football practice at James Madison might have been more noteworthy for who wasn’t on the field than who was.
Beyond the graduations of stars like Tony LeZotte and L.C. Baker, the Dukes opened the spring without two expected starters on offense, one of whom is gone for good.
Guard Vernon Eason has left the program to take care of his child in Virginia Beach, JMU coach Mickey Matthews said during Thursday afternoon’s damp, helmets-only practice at Bridgeforth Stadium.
“He felt like it was his responsibility to return and be a father,” Matthews said. “We certainly understood he was making a change for all the right reasons and we support him.”
Eason could not be reached for comment.
Still, with starting tight end Mike Caussin not in school this semester for “personal reasons” and offensive tackle Terrence Apted being held out of contact drills after offseason shoulder surgery, Eason’s departure could be a critical blow for JMU.
“That really kind of threw us for a loop when that happened,” Matthews said.
Matthews said rising juniors Chris Clarke (6-2, 280) and Mike Pope (6-0, 270), rising sophomores Brett Ainsley (6-3, 285) and Arthur Walker (6-3, 310) and Donny Smith (6-2, 290), a former walk-on at West Virginia who transferred to JMU this semester, will all compete for Eason’s vacant spot.
With Apted set to return - and start - in August, Matthews said the coaching staff has to be careful to prepare players for the positions they will actually see time at, not just the spots that need to be filled in the spring.
“You’ve got to watch it because you’re working a kid at a different position than he’ll be playing in the fall when everyone’s out here,” Matthews said. “As a coaching staff, you have to pay attention.”
Freshman offensive lineman Lue Akuak, who enrolled at JMU this semester out of Fork Union, spent Thursday’s first spring practice in street clothes.
Matthews said Akuak wasn’t practicing because of an “internal discipline issue,” though he may still practice later this spring.
Apted – along with a number of teammates, including fullback Trae Kenney (shoulder) and tailback Eugene Holloman (knee) – is expected to be limited to non-contact drills this spring, a role the Utah transfer isn’t looking forward to.
“I’m not a watching kind of guy,” Apted said. “It’s going to be hard.”
Also Thursday, JMU-which opens the season Aug. 30 at Duke in the debut game for new Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe - got its first real look at walk-on quarterback Aaron Butler. Coaches hope Butler can fill in as a capable practice arm after the departure of Keith McPherson, who left school after the season and is still looking for a place to transfer to.
The Dukes will also be using fleet-footed Kerby Long at quarterback, as well as tailback and wide receiver, this spring as they look to integrate the explosive 6-foot, 180-pound Arlington native into the offense.
Starting quarterback Rodney Landers said Thursday’s spring opener was positive but added it’s difficult to learn much until the players strap on pads. That happens Saturday afternoon, a practice the players are looking forward to.
“The defense already started talking today,” Landers said. “We can’t do anything with them till Saturday.”
For a team that went 8-4 last year and lost just three starters on each side of the ball - including Eason - Matthews hopes that a spirited spring can lead to another trip to the Division I-AA playoffs, where he’s guided the Dukes in three of the past four seasons.
Matthews said Thursday he’s glad his players are looking forward to putting pads back on.
“Oh, I’m sure there will be a lot of trash talk Saturday at practice,” Matthews said with a laugh. “We always improved a lot in spring practice at JMU because we have a lot of competition between the offense and defense. We don’t do a lot to discourage it as a coaching staff.”
NOTES: A source said JMU is still involved with former Virginia defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald left U.Va. and is expected to enroll at another college for the fall semester.
Spring Practice Starts With A ‘Loss’
By Mike Barber, DNR Online