By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- Last year didn't go the way James Madison University wanted it to, but with a strong nucleus returning the Dukes are as optimistic and motivated as ever.
JMU returns nine starters on offense and six on defense. Despite that, JMU was picked only fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll. JMU coach Mickey Matthews said he isn't concerned by any polls, and is confident in this year's team.
"Certainly at James Madison we're not accustomed to being picked anywhere down there," Matthews said of the poll. "I think it all works together, too. I think the way the last two games went [last year], and being picked fifth, I think motivation is not a problem right now at our place."
The Dukes controlled their own fate last year, but lost 35-20 to Villanova and then 38-28 to ODU. They missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
One of the problems last year was the offense, and the program made some big changes in the offseason. Former N.C. State head coach Mike O'Cain was brought on to be the offensive coordinator. Former Virginia Tech assistant Curt Newsome was hired as the assistant head coach and offensive line coach.
O'Cain plans to speed up the Dukes offense with a no-huddle offensive attack and more passing than in the past.
The Dukes have a solid quarterback in sophomore Michael Birdsong. Last year Birdsong was the only freshman that wasn't red-shirted. He started two games for the Dukes before an injury sidelined him for the last two games of the season. Birdsong played in eight games and threw for 478 yards on 41 for 77 passing and four touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown and had 179 yards rushing on 26 carries.
Dae'Quan Scott is back at running back. The senior has suffered through back-to-back, injury-plagued seasons. Last year he played in nine games and ran for 781 yards and had eight touchdowns. He was also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. He had 30 receptions for 295 yards and four touchdowns.
Austin Lane, Josh Wells, Eric Buchholz, Matt Cunningham and Matt Williams are all back on the offensive line for the Dukes, and all have worked hard to get even stronger in the offseason according to Matthews.
"When we had our first 11-on-11 in practice, I told the offensive staff that was the biggest change from last year -- we are a much more physical looking team," Matthews said. "We looked bigger and we blocked bigger. Curt [Newsome] really made a point with all those kids to make sure you're bigger. We really are. We've never been this big."
Sherando graduate Brian Barlow, who is now a running backs coach at Virginia State University, graduated from JMU in the spring leaving a big hole for Dukes. Matthews said he's been waiting for someone to step up and take the position, but early in the camp no one had. He said they were looking at Dominick Richards, Derek Hart and Deane Cheatham.
The Dukes have a strong core of receivers back led by Arlandis Harvey, DeAndre Smith, Daniel Brown and Ryan Dixon.
Smith, a junior, started in four games last year and had 29 receptions for 323 yards and two touchdowns. He was second on the team in yards, and third in receptions. Redshirt senior Harvey finished with nine receptions for 136 yards and one touchdown.
"The kid that's really practicing well and doing a lot of good things is DeAndre Smith," Matthews said. "DeAndre is a guy who can catch 60 or 70 balls in a season. He's a good ballplayer. He's a very good athlete.
"Arlandis Harvey is a guy who always gets open. He always catches the ball. He's going to play a lot this year.
Redshirt senior Cameron Starke is back at kicker, but he had to have his knee scoped in July. Matthews said he wasn't sure if Starke would be ready to go for the season opener on Aug. 31 against Central Connecticut State.
Redshirt sophomore Connor Arnone and Handley graduate Graham Sharples would be in line to start at kicker if Starke could not go.
Sharples and Arnone were also battling for the punter position, with Sharples listed as the No. 1 heading into preseason.
Jordan Stanton, Alex Mosley and Tyler Snow all return for the Dukes on the defensive line. However, an injury to Snow in the preseason may sideline him for the first few weeks of the season.
"Major college football will always be won at the line of scrimmage," Matthews said. "The best thing we have is our offensive line and our defensive line. Those guys have all played a lot, which that's a huge plus for us. We have a lot of experience up front on both sides of the ball, and I'm sure that will pay huge dividends for us."
2013 CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Robertson leads the way at linebacker. Last year he had 101 tackles and was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year.
The redshirt senior finished eighth last year in the 2012 Buck Buchanan Award, which is the award for the top defensive player in FCS.
Warren County graduate and redshirt freshman Gage Steele will be playing behind Robertson, and be able to learn from JMU's top defensive player.
Titus Till will also be returning at linebacker, with the other spot being up for grabs.
Junior Dean Marlowe and Handley graduate and redshirt junior Jeremiah Wilson will be at the safety spots, while several players were battling for the cornerback slots.
The Dukes finished 7-4 last season, after a 5-1 start. Matthews said the goal for the Dukes this year is the same as it is every season.
"Our goal every year at James Madison is to win a national championship - period," Matthews said. "That's where we are. We never talk about anything else. Our goal is to win it. I never think about anything else, to be honest with you. I believe that. I don't think players are going to believe that unless I believe that, unless our staff believes that. And we believe that we're that good and now we got to go out and prove it."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org