By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- Gage Steele had a sterling season for James Madison University's football team last year. However, don't expect the Warren County graduate and current JMU redshirt sophomore to get caught basking in the glory of his success.
Steele believes as good as last season was, he has a lot to improve on over the next three years.
"Last year is just one thing that will stick in my head for the rest of my life," Steele said. "It was a great experience, but I'm focused on this year now. I'm only going to try to get better.
"I'm going to constantly work on my craft, my toolbox, and each year I'm going to come out better and better."
As a redshirt freshman Steele had 106 tackles, including 43 unassisted. He had three sacks and forced three fumbles. Steele was also a third-team All-CAA selection.
He said that he even surprised himself with the success that he had for the Dukes.
"Last season I was definitely a little nervous, but that's how it's going to be playing college ball," Steele said. "But it's also a dream that I've always wanted to accomplish. Last year I just wanted to be productive for the team, knowing that I was young. I didn't have as much experience, but I was just constantly trying to get better to help out the team."
Steele also had help at his linebacker position with Stephon Robertson, who was the two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year.
Steele said Robertson, who graduated from JMU in May, was a great mentor to have.
"He was my teacher all last year," Steel said. "I did nothing but sit down and watch film with him, ask him questions constantly just trying to add to what I knew about football. Coming from high school, it's a totally different animal coming up here. Stephon was just a great teacher, unfortunately it was only for one year but it will be OK. I still talk to him to this day. He's a real good guy."
Steele suffered a hip injury in preseason this year, but is expected to be ready for JMU's season opener against Maryland.
A lot changed in the offseason for the Dukes. After a 6-5 season, head coach Mickey Matthews was replaced by Everett Withers, who brought a whole new staff in with him.
JMU also switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, although they will still use the 4-3 some.
Steele said he's enjoying the new defense.
"There are tons of different formations that we can run out of in this 3-4 package, and it just seems like anything the offense throws at us we got something to counteract it," Steele said. "It's really exciting to learn a new defense where you have so many things to counteract offenses with."
With the 3-4 depth will be even more important at the linebacker spot, and Steele said he believes the team has plenty of depth in the middle of the defense.
Robertson was a big leader for the Dukes, and Steele said he knows that he has to step up and be more of a leader and he believes he's ready to do that.
"I've got to be more of a leader this year. I've got to take control," Steele said. "I love working with all [the linebackers]. They're real competitive. It's real nice to work with guys who want the same thing as you. It makes your job a lot easier."
Withers said being a vocal leader is an area where they are really looking for Steele to improve before the season starts.
"We want him to grow as a leader," Withers said. "He's not a real talkative guy, so we have to make him do some things. We'll try to make him uncomfortable and make him have to communicate with his teammates. If he'll do that and grow in that way in training camp, that will be a plus for us."
JMU defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said he's happy that Steele is at JMU.
"They don't make them like Gage very often," Staley said. "He's been a real pleasure to coach. He's a throwback. He's a pro. He's really mature. He takes a lot of pride in his performance. He's an exceptional student.
"We're real excited about him. He can be a lot better player and he knows that. And it's going to be exciting to work with him and see him grow."
Steele said the first time he ran onto the field a few years ago he couldn't stop smiling. He said even last year that same incredible feeling came over him every time he stepped onto the field.
"It didn't get old," Steel said of running onto the field. "It was just amazing running out in front of the crowd. It makes me more hungry to do better. It's a motivator. You want to do well for all these guys, my family and fans. It's an amazing experience, and I'm very humbled. I don't talk much about it, but I'm very thankful for this opportunity."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd