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Few Woes For JMU In First Practice
HARRISONBURG - While the coaching staff uses August to address and obsess over possible flaws and deficiencies, it was hard not to notice Monday just how potentially formidable James Madison’s football team might be this season.
From the returns of tailback Eugene Holloman, tight end Mike Caussin and defensive end Hassan Abdul Wahid, to the 15 starters back from last year’s 8-4 team, to the plethora of offensive weapons - led by quarterback Rodney Landers - it was obvious at the first practice of the season Monday why the Dukes are considered contenders for the Division I-AA national championship.
“The team endurance was high, the team moral was high,” Landers said after opting to run six extra 100-yard laps at Bridgeforth Stadium to further enhance his own conditioning. “I think everybody’s just excited getting out there and delivering. We looked pretty good today.”
About 90 players took part in Monday’s helmets-only workout on the grass practice fields.
“Everybody came out here and worked pretty hard from the git-go on defense,” defensive tackle Sam Daniels said. “But it was just the first day, everybody’s shaking off a lot of rust.”
Oft-injured cornerback and kick returner Scotty McGee (ankle) was limited Monday, and starting center Scott Lemn, a preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association pick, has a strained hamstring that will keep him out of practice this week.
“It’s nothing major,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said of Lemn’s injury. “We just didn’t want to push it.”
With an imposing schedule looming - one that includes opening at a Division I-A school, Duke, on Aug. 30 and back-to-back home games against highly regarded Massachusetts and Appalachian State - the mood Monday was a blend of optimism and confidence.
There are relatively few holes to plug from last year’s team that came within a point of upsetting Appalachian State in the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs. Freshman Jamie Veney practiced alongside senior D.J. Brandon in the linebacker position vacated by the departure of Justin Barnes.
Vidal Nelson slid back from linebacker to strong safety and Marcus Haywood moved seamlessly to his natural position of free safety, where he must take over for four-time I-AA All-American Tony LeZotte.
“We came out with a lot intensity,” Haywood said. “We had a pretty good day.”
The linebacking position is the only major area of concern for the Dukes this preseason.
“In the middle of our defense, we’re so unsettled,” Matthews said. “We wouldn’t hesitate to move Vidal back to linebacker if we didn’t like what we were seeing.”
Offensively, the surprise withdrawal from school last spring by guard Vernon Eason opened up a spot on the line. Monday, with Lemn not practicing, Chris Clarke played center, with Roane Babbington and Dorian Brooks at guard, and Terrence Apted and Theo Sherman at the tackle spots.
Landers and Holloman were the first-team backfield, with Griff Yancey - who started after Holloman’s knee injury last year - also seeing time with the first group.
Former Turner Ashby High School star Charlie Newman opens practice as the No. 1 fullback. Caussin, who wasn’t with the team in the spring, is back and atop the depth chart at tight end.
Rockeed McCarter, former Harrisonburg High School star Patrick Ward and speedy redshirt freshman Kerby Long saw most of the time at receiver with the first team.
Still, Bosco Williams, Ray Brown, Marcus Turner and Doug McNeil could all also factor in at the position, giving JMU plenty of options.
“They’re all great athletes, and run great routes and have great hands,” backup quarterback Drew Dudzik said. “It’s all about who wants to play more.”
Landers said the team will focus heavily this first week on installing the offense and developing chemistry, things he expects to go smoothly because of the team’s high level of experience.
“All those guys can make plays and would be starters for a lot of teams across the country,” Landers said.
So, how many receivers can actually get enough practice reps to develop chemistry and cohesion with the first-team offense?
“You want to say you could have it with everyone, but realistically probably three to four,” Landers said. “You have some go-to guys.”
Two-a-day practices start Saturday.
Day 1: Few Woes For JMU
By Mike Barber, The Harrisonburg Daily News Record