By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISONBURG -- James Madison University head football coach Mickey Matthews likes to be up front and honest about his football team. He's not afraid to say if his team has some holes that need to be filled. He's also not afraid to say if he thinks he has a strong team, or if they have a long ways to go.
Perhaps many of the other teams in the Football Championship Subdivision should be concerned after Matthews' comments at JMU's media day on Aug. 10.
"We feel pretty good about our football team," Matthews said. "It remains to be seen how many we win or lose. But when we people ask me about our football team, I tell them we have fewer question marks than we've had in many years going into the season."
Matthews' confidence can be felt throughout the entire team.
JMU has a lot back on both sides of the ball and things were going smoothly from the very start of the preseason.
"We're experienced from all the positions," junior wide receiver Quintin Hunter said. "We got a senior quarterback. We got plenty of receivers, tight ends, O-line. Defensive side of the ball, we got plenty of guys coming back so we're looking real good this year."
DEPTH FOR THE DUKES: One thing Matthews said he noticed early on in the Dukes' first days of practice was the depth the team has.
Matthews said at times the second-team defense scrimmaged against the first-team offense and at times the second-team offense scrimmaged with first-team defense, and yet the scores were close.
"We've been going 1's against 2's and it's been very encouraging how well our 2's are holding up against our 1's," Matthews said. "I don't think we've ever had that. Probably because we got beat up last year a lot -- some [non-starters] played. It's been interesting. That means you have good depth at some spots. And it really should pay dividends this year, especially these first three games that are going to be in the heat."
EXPERIENCED CORPS: One area where depth could come in real handy for the Dukes is at wide receiver.
JMU returns five solid receivers, all of whom now have some valuable experience. And all of them are sophomores and juniors.
Redshirt sophomores Daniel Brown and Ryan Dixon, along with redshirt juniors Arlandis Harvey, Renard Robinson and Hunter give senior quarterback Justin Thorpe plenty of options this season.
"It feels pretty good to know that your receivers are going to know exactly what you're doing," Thorpe said. "And they know me well, and I know them well."
Thorpe's favorite target last year was Sherando graduate and JMU redshirt senior tight end Brian Barlow.
Barlow caught 33 passes for 316 yards last season and had one touchdown.
"I want to just keep getting better on the little things," Barlow said. "You go back and look at it. You know a step faster here, that could've been a better block, a better route here would've been more yards -- stuff like that. You can always get better."
SATISFYING SCHEDULE: Matthews said he is much happier with the Dukes' schedule this season.
JMU opens up with two home games against St. Francis (Pa.) on Sept. 1 and Alcorn State on Sept. 8. They will then take on West Virginia on Sept. 15 in a game played at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
"We love our schedule," Matthews said. "I think our schedule is very good. I enjoy those first two games at home in front of our fans, evaluating ourselves before we go up to FedEx. So when the schedule came out, I thought it was great. We had some really tough games last year on the road. As much as I didn't like last year's schedule, I really like this year' schedule."
Last year JMU started off with a road game against the University of North Carolina, which turned into a 42-10 loss.
"I think it really helps your preseason camp when you don't have to play King Kong the first game," Matthews said. "Anytime I talked to [JMU Director of Athletics] Mr. [Jeff] Bourne, one thing I tried to get him to do is not open with a BCS school, because that really makes your preseason camp that much more difficult. You're trying to prepare your guys to play that game, and to give a good representation, give themselves a chance to win. So you have to have some pretty tough scrimmages early.
"This year we don't. St. Francis is a little bit different than going down to Chapel Hill."