By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- James Madison University has five kickers and/or punters listed on its roster, and two of them are local athletes. Handley graduate Graham Sharples and Stonewall Jackson graduate Juan Luna both have bright futures with JMU.
Sharples is listed at the top of the depth chart for the punter spot, while Luna is just getting his feet wet and learning all about the JMU program.
Sharples has been waiting patiently for the past few years, and JMU coach Mickey Matthews said they have plenty of confidence in him.
"Graham Sharples has always been in the mix at place kicker and punter," Matthews said. "Graham has always been good. Many times in practice, we've had competitions, and I've thought Graham Sharples could be kicking for a lot of teams in the country."
Sharples, a redshirt sophomore, has been behind JMU redshirt senior Cameron Starke for the last few years. Starke had to have his knee scoped, and Matthews said he's wasn't sure if he would be ready for the season opener. If he's not, either Sharples or Connor Arnone will get the nod.
Sharples and Arnone are also battling to be the punter, and Sharples said he's glad to have competition.
"The pressure is on," Sharples said. "Without competition, what makes you better? I've been behind Cameron since I've been here and you can ask him and he'll tell you, without me right behind him, it would be easy. You have nothing to worry about, no pressure. It's good to have pressure."
Punting wasn't Sharples' strong point coming out of high school. JMU lost punter David Skahn to graduation last spring, and Sharples knew the opportunity to take over the role was there.
"It's a lot different [from kicking], but I enjoy it," Sharples said. "I'm completely content with being on the field, so whatever coach wants that's what he'll get. Whatever position coach needed me to be at, that's where I was at."
Kickers coach Clayton Matthews said he's seen as lot of improvement from Sharples over the last year with his punting.
"He's improved drastically from a year ago," Clayton Matthews said. "It wasn't something that he did great when he first got here.
"For the last three years our kicker and punter have been older than Graham, and he's the type of kid that really listens and learns from them. That's the good thing about James Madison -- our older guys always try to help out the younger guys."
That was once again true with Sharples, who said he picked Skahn's brain before he left and it's helped him out.
Skahn averaged 38.9 yards per punt last season, and the Dukes gave up less than 20 total yards the entire season on punt returns.
Sharples said he went to a camp at U.Va over the summer, which really helped him, and his dad has also helped him. Sharples said he's been working on a new rugby-style punt, which is what the Dukes would like to use this year.
Sharples said he thought Luna was also doing well working with the punters and kickers. Sharples said he first met Luna when they played against each other in a winter soccer league at the Sportsplex in Winchester, while Sharples was still in high school.
"He's an awesome soccer player, and also an awesome kicker and punter," Sharples said.
Luna is a preferred walk-on, and Clayton Matthews said he really impressed him last year at a JMU camp.
"He has a really good leg," Clayton Matthews said. "Whenever you get a local kid that has a leg like him, you got to do everything you can to get him in the program.
"A year from now we want to have two if not three guys battling for [Starke's placekicking] job. This spring is huge."
Sharples will certainly be one of those in the battle, and he said he just wants to do whatever he can to help the Dukes out.
"Whatever I can do to help out the team, get on the field, makes me happy," Sharples said.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org