By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- James Madison University's football team had many changes in the offseason, but all the changes may lead to plenty of success this season.
The Dukes have a completely new coaching staff, including a head coach, a new defense and lots of transfers. However, the players are confident that the changes have been for the better.
"We tried to get a lot more energy around the program and just do things differently and put in coach [Everett] Wither's perspective, and his whole staff and just get used to our team," JMU redshirt senior offensive lineman Matt Williams said. "I think we started out in winter and then rolled through spring getting to know our plays and our schemes and that kind of stuff, just changing our whole culture. I wish I had more time here. It's been exciting."
One of the biggest things the new coaching staff did was bring the players closer together, and the team chemistry has been much improved this season.
"This is my fifth year and I don't know that this team's ever been this close," redshirt senior wide receiver Daniel Brown said. "Now offensive and defensive guys are hanging out. Linemen and receivers, things like that. Everybody has a good time. We've had a couple times this summer where the team's just gotten together and hung out, and it's just been really fun."
Withers said that he and his staff believe that close bond will help on the field this season.
The Dukes will certainly have plenty of talent on the field. It may all start with Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee. The redshirt junior is expected to be the quarterback of a fast-paced offense that will try to run as many plays as possible.
Lee ran for 513 yards and passed for 1,561 yards in helping the Yellow Jackets to a second-place finish in the Coastal Division of the ACC.
"This offense is great," Lee said. "We've got some great playmakers. We got a great offensive line. I can't say that enough, because those guys are really working their butt off. We're just looking to get better each and every day."
University of Tennessee transfer Alden Hill will battle sophomore Khalid Abdullah for the starting running back spot.
The Dukes should have plenty of depth at wide receivers. Brown, Brandon Ravenel and DeAndre Smith will be joined by transfers Sean Tapley (North Carolina) and redshirt freshman Ishmael Hyman (Kansas).
The offensive line will also have plenty of depth. Williams, Matt Cunningham, Dominick Richards and Austin Lane are back this season, and the Dukes have two transfers in Millbrook graduate A.J. Bolden (Toledo) and Nick Appel (North Carolina) who will help give them additional depth.
"I think our line is really good," Williams said. "We're going to be a really tight unit. I think we've come together so much as a unit. We have a lot of depth and experience on the line, so that's going to be huge. Our team chemistry, our team camaraderie has just been unbelievable."
Withers said Connor Arnone will help lead the kicking game in some capacity, but he wasn't sure if that would be as a punter, placekicker or kickoff guy. There were several others being looked at for the open special teams slots.
JMU's defense struggled at times last season, especially in the secondary. JMU will play mostly out of the 3-4 instead of the 4-3 this season, and the players were excited about the change.
The Dukes should be solid up front led by Sage Harold, Brandon Lee and Alex Mosley.
Warren County graduate Gage Steele and Titus Till will help lead the way in the linebacking spots, although they will have to fill the void left by the graduated Stephon Robertson.
The Dukes were young in the secondary last season, but have a lot coming back and with another year of experience should be much improved.
Dean Marlowe, Handley graduate Jeremiah Wilson, Taylor Reynolds and Kwe'Shon Williams are all back this season.
Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said he wants his players to be aggressive.
"We want our guys to have fun playing the game," Staley said. "The only way you're going to make any plays is being aggressive. No player in the history of ball has made a play by being scared."
The JMU coaching staff is confident that if the players buy into the culture and do what is asked they will have a good season.
"I'm expecting good things out of this football team," Withers said. "It may not mean 10-1 or whatever, it may not mean that. It may mean growing every week, getting better as a football team every week. The objective is to get better every week."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd