By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISONBURG -- James Madison University's football media day this year had more of a local flavor than ever before.
There are currently four local athletes on JMU's football squad, and all of them could have an impact on the team this season.
Redshirt senior tight end Brian Barlow, redshirt sophomore kicker Graham Sharples, true freshman linebacker Gage Steele and redshirt sophomore cornerback Jeremiah Wilson are all looking to help put the Dukes on top in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"It is nice," Sharples said of the quartet being on the team together. "It's also nice seeing people from all other areas. But I like seeing players from the Winchester-Northern Virginia area."
Sharples and Barlow have been on the team together for the last two years, but now they have the two new additions. Sharples and Wilson played and graduated together at Handley, and have been friends for a long time.
Wilson enrolled at JMU last winter, and said it was nice seeing familiar faces such as Sharples and Barlow.
"Whenever their family comes up, I talk to their family," Wilson said. "It's good having people here that I know."
JMU has been home for Barlow, a Sherando graduate, for more than four years now, and he has made quite the impact on the school.
He was a first-team all-CAA preseason selection at H-back. He has played in 31 games and has 44 receptions for 430 yards and one touchdown in his career.
JMU head coach Mickey Matthews said he believes Barlow can have a career in the National Football League at H-back. Barlow admitted that playing in the NFL is in the back of his mind, but he's just trying to focus on being at his best in his final season.
"I'm excited about my senior year," Barlow said. "I'm just trying to focus on the little things, be the best I can be at both blocking and receiving. There's always more you can do. I'm just trying to be the best player I can."
Sharples is currently listed as the No. 2 kicker in JMU's depth chart, behind redshirt junior Cameron Starke. When Sharples first came to JMU, he had quite a few kickers in front of him, but he has now worked his way towards the top.
Sharples said he's also been working on punting some as well this year. Redshirt senior David Skahn is the team's punter, with Starke as his backup.
Sharples said the last few years have been a valuable experience for him. He said he and Starke are good friends and make each other better.
"It's good to have him because he pushes me and I push him," Sharples said. "We support each other. If we hit a bad kick, it's always, 'This is what you did.' It's always like a correction, and it's like a teaching progress."
Sharples said he's still taking the same amount of reps in practice that he did the last couple years.
"It's not that I'm getting more reps," Sharples said. "It's almost like coach is looking down and expecting more."
Things are certainly different for Steele, a Warren County graduate. As a true freshman, Steele is still trying to get acclimated to everything at JMU.
The linebacker had a very successful career at Warren County, and the Dukes definitely have high hopes for him.
When asked at media day which freshman might have a chance to play, Steele was one of three players Matthews mentioned. However, Matthews noted that it's very tough to expect any freshman to see playing time, especially on a squad which doesn't have a lot of holes to be filled.
JMU defensive coordinator Kyle Gillenwater said it's too early to say if the team will redshirt Steele.
"It's moving a little fast for him right now," Gillenwater said after the first week of practice. "He's a good athlete. He's a good kid. He's a good student. He's strong. He's going to be fine. He asks good questions, plays hard."
The transition has been much smoother for Wilson, who transferred from Maryland last winter.
Wilson played at running back and returned kickoffs for Maryland, but will switch to cornerback for JMU. He will probably also be part of JMU's special teams.
One of things that makes the 5-foot-10 Wilson stand out is his size.
"He's bigger," Gillenwater said. "He has more physical presence than most corners. A 200, 205-pound kid that can run like that. Obviously, his speed is good, all of our corners run well, but he's bigger than most. That will enable him to use it to be a lot more aggressive in press coverage because of the weight and strength differences."
It remains to be seen just how much the local quartet play and what they can achieve this season for JMU, but Barlow said he's just happy to see more and more local athletes playing at such a high level.
"We're getting the best people from up there," Barlow said. "I like that the area is getting recognized and getting some credit up there."