By Tommy Keeler Jr. -- firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISONBURG -- Brian Barlow has received plenty of recognition over the last couple of years. The Sherando graduate was named to the All-Colonial Athletic Association second team as an H-back last year. This year the JMU senior was a first-team All-CAA preseason H-back/fullback. Barlow is happy for the honors, but entering his final season as a Duke, Barlow wants something more.
"I appreciate the honor," Barlow said of his preseason accolade during JMU's media day. "I just want to get a ring -- a team championship. I'm thankful for the honor. But I'd love to play in January down in Texas, playing for a national championship. That would be awesome."
Barlow just may get his wish. The Dukes certainly have the talent to accomplish something they haven't done since 2004. JMU has been ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 5 in many of the preseason publications and polls.
Last year the Dukes struggled on offense, but head coach Mickey Matthews said the offense was actually ahead of the defense early this preseason.
A big part of that is the play of starting quarterback Justin Thorpe. The redshirt senior has had an up-and-down career at JMU. He started eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2009. In 2010, he suffered a season-ending injury in the season-opener. Last year he came back strong, but was suspended for five games in the middle of the season, in which the Dukes went 2-3. He came back to lead the team to the playoffs. He has thrown for 2,132 yards and 11 TDs in his career.
Thorpe said having the extra time in spring practice has helped him coming into this season. Thorpe said it also helps knowing that the starting job is his, and he's not having to battle anyone else for the spot.
"My comfort level has never really been down, but it's a different feeling going into it knowing that you're the starter instead of being in competition," Thorpe said.
Last year the Dukes were inexperienced at wide receiver, but that's not the case this year. The Dukes return four lettermen from last year at receiver, all of whom are sophomores and juniors. Also returning is Quintin Hunter, who did not play last year due to injury. Hunter had six catches for 116 yards in 2010 in nine games. They also have redshirt junior Arlandis Harvey returning. Harvey had 10 receptions for 74 yards last year for the Dukes.
Barlow led the team in receptions last year with 33 for 316 yards. Barlow said the addition of former University of Richmond coach Latrell Scott, now JMU's tight ends coach, has helped the tight ends a lot.
"He's helped out a lot with our route running and reading defenses," Barlow said. "It's just adding to all the tight ends' games. And I'm glad we got him."
The Dukes should also have a strong running game. Matthews said Dae'Quan Scott and Jordan Anderson are pushing each other hard for the starting tailback spot. Scott ran for 1,304 yards last season with 12 touchdowns, while Anderson rushed for 858 yards and nine TDs.
JMU lost only one starter from the offensive line, and should be solid up front this season. An experienced offensive line should help the Dukes become a more powerful offensive team this year.
JMU is also strong at special teams with redshirt senior punter David Skahn and redshirt junior kicker Cameron Starke. Skahn was a second-team all-CAA selection last year, and averaged 40.1 yards per punt.
Starke made 15 field goals, tying a school record, and he hit two-game winners for the Dukes.
"I don't know if we have the two best kickers in the nation, but certainly our guys are all-American candidates," Matthews said.
Handley graduate and JMU redshirt sophomore Graham Sharples is Starke's back-up at kicker.
JMU returns six starters on defense, from a team that led the CAA in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense.
The defensive line will be led by redshirt junior Tyler Snow, who started all 13 games last season for the Dukes. Snow has 87 tackles in his career, and had four sacks last season for the Dukes.
Redshirt junior Stephon Robertson leads a solid linebacking group. Robertson had 113 tackles last year for the Dukes, and has started every game the last two years.
JMU's secondary is also very strong, led by senior Jakarie Jackson and redshirt sophomore Dean Marlowe (four interceptions last year). The Dukes have also added Handley graduate and Maryland transfer Jeremiah Wilson and his teammate at Maryland, Titus Till.
Wilson was listed at No. 2 at left cornerback on the depth chart before preseason practice started. Wilson suffered a hamstring injury on the second day of practice, but once healed the coaching staff said they are expecting good things from Wilson.
"Jeremiah, when he's healthy, he's practiced very well," Matthews said. "We thought he was a heck of a player out of high school, and I think he can be a great corner. I think he's got tremendous potential."
JMU starts its season off with home games against St. Francis (Pa.) and Alcorn State, before playing West Virginia at FedEx Field in Washington D.C.
The Dukes have a chance to have a very strong and special season. While the ultimate goal is winning the national title, the players said they know they have to take it one game at a time. After finishing third in the CAA last year, they also want to win their first CAA title since 2008.
"We have to bring another conference [title] back to James Madison," Thorpe said. "We have the talent to do it. So, there's pretty much no excuses at all."