JMU freshmen make big impact

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — It was a big day for freshmen in Saturday’s 38-14 win for James Madison University over Central Connecticut State.

The Dukes started three redshirt freshmen, including Warren County graduate Gage Steele. They also had several other freshmen shine in a backup role.

Steele, playing at linebacker, was tied for the most tackles on the team with 12. Steele was originally going to backup All-American linebacker Stephon Robertson, but during the preseason he impressed the coaches so much that they decided he needed to be in the starting lineup.

“I thought Gage did good,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “I still think his true position, his natural position, is middle linebacker, but we moved him to [outside linebacker] just to get him on the field. He’s still learning. He still made a couple mistakes.

“Gage, he’ll get nothing but better. He’s extremely competitive, very tough. His first college game — he’ll do better.”

Another big redshirt freshman standout was starting cornerback Taylor Reynolds. In his first game, Reynolds returned an interception 51 yards for a touchdown that helped the Dukes seal the game.

“It was a good experience,” Reynolds said of his first career start. “It was a huge crowd compared to playing in high school. I really haven’t played a game since 2011. So my first game on the defensive side of the ball — it was a good experience.”

Matthews said he was also very happy with the play of redshirt freshman Kwe’shon Williams, who has started at cornerback.

Another redshirt freshman that showed some promise was running back Jainard Lambert. He finished with 28 yards on 11 carries.

“I thought Lambert played well,” Matthews said. “I thought probably the most effective runner we had was Lambert. He had some strong runs and he’ll get better.”

True freshman Rashard Davis was in JMU’s rotation at wide receiver and finished the game with one reception for 19 yards.

OFF AND RUNNING: Matthews has made it clear that he doesn’t want sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong running too much this season.

The signal caller had a tendency to run last year, and his season came to an early end due to injury. Not much changed in the first game of the season as Birdsong carried the ball nine times for 55 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-4 240-pound Birdsong said that none of the plays were designed runs.

“Obviously I’m pretty big out there compared to most quarterbacks,” Birdsong said. “And going up against the defense I’m 240 pounds, so I’m not going to shy down from anybody. Coaches don’t seem to like that too much and I’m going to adjust, but if it’s one on one I’m going to attack them. I’m not going to side step them or slide unless there’s a crowd, like I should have a few times tonight.”

Matthews said Birdsong will learn, and that they’ll continue to tell him to slide more often instead of taking a hit when he does have to run.

Birdsong finished 10 for 18 for 155 yards passing and one touchdown. He admitted that he needs to be more patient in the pocket.

“I just need to relax,” Birdsong said. “I think there was a couple plays where I took off out of the pocket, and Dae’Quan [Scott] was standing there on the swing route wide open. I could have dumped it to him. I think I just need to sit back there a little longer, trust my lineman and get it to my athletes on the side.”

SPECIAL UNIT: One of the strong parts of JMU’s game on Saturday was the play of the special teams.

Scott returned a punt 54 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter to give the Dukes some breathing room.

JMU kick returner DeAndre Smith also returned a kick 42 yards late in the first half to set-up a JMU touchdown in the final minute.

“Our kicking might have been the best thing we did tonight,” Matthews said. “Connor [Arnone] kicked several touchbacks. Our field goal [kicking] was good, our protection was good. We fielded the ball good. The ball never touched the ground, which was huge.
“We’ve always prided ourselves in having a good kicking game, and we’ll continue to do that.”

The Dukes have added a new wrinkle in their punt return team this season. They now have three players — Scott, Smith and Dean Marlowe — back to return punts.

Matthews said they made the decision to add more players on punt returns last spring, and it seemed to work well against the Blue Devils.

“In our league right now no one’s punting the ball down the field, everybody’s rugby punting,” Matthews said. “Your rule of thumb you teach your punt returners is never let the ball hit the ground. That’s a cardinal rule. Last year we had one return guy, and the ball was hitting the ground all the time. We’re just practicing to not let the ball hit the ground.”

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd