By Tommy Keeler Jr.
The goal of any team during preseason college football camp is to get better, and to stay healthy going into the regular season. JMU coach Mickey Matthews can happily check that one off his list.
The Dukes will go into their season opener tonight at home against Central Connecticut State about as healthy as possible.
Matthews said to help keep the team from getting injuries, they didn't go in full pads as much as he would have liked, but staying healthy is what's most important.
"We're not as deep as we need to be in a couple spots. We can't afford to get anyone hurt," Matthews said. "We probably will not be as crisp as we want them to be early, but we'll quickly knock the rust off of them when we play Saturday."
The Dukes were given a scare early in preseason camp when sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong was hospitalized with an appendectomy. He was out for 10 days, but returned last week and will be ready to lead the Dukes against he Blue Devils tonight.
Matthews said he's excited to see how Birdsong will perform this season. Last year he played in eight games, including two starts. Birdsong threw for 478 yards on 41 for 77 passing with four touchdowns. He also ran for 179 yards on 26 carries and one touchdown.
"I don't know if I've ever seen anyone improve as much as he did from Aug. 6 to Oct. 1 last year," Matthews said. "He really has a presence about him. I think in the early ballgame last year everyone could see that he was going to be a great player.
"This year he's been in the weight room. He's much bigger than he was. He's much more athletic than he was. We always say the stronger you get, the quicker and faster you get. He looks very good. He's a lot of fun to coach right now."
JMU will be running a more uptempo offense this year under new offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain.
Matthews said the fans should enjoy watching the Dukes' offense this season.
"The biggest difference the fans well see is how fast we go," Matthews said. "We get plays running in a hurry. It's like the Indianapolis 500 out there sometimes without a pit stop."
JMU returns six starters on defense this season and should be strong once again.
Warren County graduate and JMU redshirt freshman Gage Steele is expected to make his first career start at outside linebacker.
Originally, the JMU coaching staff wanted to have Steele backup All-American middle linebacker and senior Stephon Robertson, but Steele impressed them so much in the preseason they decided to make a change.
"We had two back-to-back scrimmages where we were tackling to the ground. We took Stephon out, and Gage was the best player we had on defense," Matthews said. "When we practice he makes tackles and he's a very, very good football player."
JMU played Central Connecticut State two years ago. It was the first game in the newly renovated Bridgeforth Stadium/Zane Showker Field.
The Dukes struggled throughout the game and barely pulled out a 14-9 victory.
"I thought Central Connecticut played well, but we certainly we didn't shower after the game because we didn't play hard enough to sweat," Matthews said. "Some of our older players remember that night. Hopefully we'll have a lot more effort, and have a little more sense of urgency than we did two years ago."
The two teams didn't play last season. Central Connecticut State is still coached by Jeff McInerney. Former Liberty-Bealeton High School coach Tommy Buzzo is the co-defensive coordinator for the Blue Devils.
Central Connecticut State will have plenty of weapons returning from last year's squad, which went 2-8. Junior running back Rob Hollomon rushed for 1,104 yards on 213 carries. Hollomon led the Northeast Conference in rushing yards last year.
Quarterback Andrew Clements is also back after throwing for 1,266 yards with 10 touchdowns last year. Wide receiver Denzell Jones is also back after catching 35 passes last season for 337 yards. The Blue Devils top returning tackler is Antwione Resse, who had 89 tackles and a fumble recovery for the Blue Devils.
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Matthews said of the Blue Devils. "They're going to have some good players."
Matthews said his team is tired of practicing against each other and are ready and eager to face an actual opponent.
"The guys are all excited," Matthews said. "We've been practicing every day since Aug. 6 against James Madison, and we don't play James Madison this year so they're ready to play someone else."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd