Withers’ era starts with tough opener

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

James Madison University’s football team underwent significant changes in the offseason. A new coaching staff, including a new head coach, changes to the offensive and defensive systems and lots of transfers. The new-look Dukes don’t have to wait for their first big test as they on Maryland today at 3:30 p.m. at Byrd Stadium in College Park, Maryland.

JMU head coach Everett Withers said he’s been happy with how his team has responded during the preseason camp.

“I feel like we’re right where we need to be,” Withers said. “We’ve had a very successful training camp. Anytime you bring in a new way of doing things, it can be hard for the kids. I think the kids have handled it very well.”

There are plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball for the Dukes, starting with quarterback Vad Lee, who transferred from Georgia Tech. Lee threw for 1,561 yards and ran for 513 yards last year for Georgia Tech. He accounted for 32 touchdowns in two seasons with the Yellow Jackets.

Withers said Lee has done a great job of being a leader for the team.

“Vad Lee will be a big part of our offense. I think, on offense, we’ll go how Vad Lee goes. I think he’s up to that challenge,” Withers said.

Millbrook graduate A.J. Bolden, who transferred from Toledo, will be one of two transfers expected to start on the offensive line for the Dukes. Withers said he likes the depth the team has at offensive line, and said that all of the starters can play more than one position on the line, which could help in case of injuries.

The Dukes will be using a hurry-up spread offense, even faster than they used last season.

Withers said they will use four different running backs — sophomore Khalid Abdullah, University of Tennessee transfer Alden Hill, freshman John Miller and redshirt senior Jauan Latney — to keep all of them fresh throughout the game.

The Dukes should have plenty of depth on the defensive line in a new 3-4 system. Sage Harold has moved from the defensive line to linebacker, and Withers said that should benefit the Dukes.

“I think [linebacker] is a more natural fit for Sage,” Withers said. “Our goal was to find a way to get the best 11 guys on the field, and I feel like we’ve done that.”

One player who will likely not be on the field is Warren County graduate Gage Steele. The redshirt sophomore linebacker has battled a hip injury throughout the preseason and is not on the two-deep depth chart for the Maryland game. Withers said earlier in the week that Steele was still day-to-day.

Withers said Steele has handled it well, but he will be in a battle to get his starting job back once he returns. Rhakeem Stallings and Kyre Hawkins have both moved into the lineup at linebacker and have done a solid job according to Withers.

“[Steele] will be in a battle to get his job back and he knows that,” Withers said. “Gage is chomping at the bit to get back out there.

“Gage is a student of the game. He’s still watching film. He’s done a nice job of staying involved and helping out some of the younger guys.”

One local player who is on the two-deep depth chart for the Maryland game is Strasburg graduate and true freshman Jonathan Kloosterman, who is listed as the second-string tight end.

Handley graduate Jeremiah Wilson will once again start in the secondary for the Dukes this season, but the redshirt senior has moved from safety to cornerback.

The Dukes’ defense should be very familiar with the Terrapins, who are playing their first game as a member of the Big 10, as Maryland runs the same offense as JMU.

“I think it helps us tremendously. Our guys [on defense] have faced this same offense all preseason and even in the spring,” Withers said.

The Terrapins are led by quarterback C.J. Brown, who threw for 2,242 yards. Brandon Ross rushed for 776 yards at tailback. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs had 587 receiving yards, despite playing only six games due to injury. The Terps return nine starters to an offense that averaged 26.2 points and 396.9 yards per game.

Withers said he expects Maryland to do very well in the Big Ten. Of course, Withers knows a little something about the Big Ten after serving as defensive coordinator for Ohio State from 2012-2013.

Withers said he’s excited about the challenge of facing Maryland in the season opener, and said his players will need to be ready.

“You know the old saying [it’s not] about the X’s and O’s, [it’s about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s]. They’ve got a lot of good Jimmy’s and Joe’s,” Withers said. “Our guys are going to have to play hard.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd