Keeler: Future bright for Dukes

Patience will be key for all James Madison University football fans this season.

It’s a word first-year JMU coach Everett Withers understands he has to have as he tries to get the most out of a young Dukes squad.

JMU has played 18 true or redshirt freshmen already this season.

“I see the future being bright for JMU football with the number of freshmen we’re playing,” Withers said. “I don’t worry about playing them. When you take over a program you’re trying to build a culture or an identity, sometimes it’s hard to do that with the existing cast that you had. We lost some guys coming into this program in the offseason and really tried to change some things. So playing the freshmen was one of the things we knew we were going to do this year.

“We’re excited about them. They’re only going to get better.”

Withers was a defensive coordinator at Ohio State the last two years, and said that 18 freshmen is the most that he’s had play on any team he’s coached, including his time as interim head coach at the University of North Carolina.

Withers is just learning the ropes of coaching at the Football Championship Subdivision level. It will take some time to get used to the teams, and playing in the CAA (the SEC of the FCS). So maybe it’s fitting that he has so many new faces, which includes seven FBS transfers, starting out at the same time as him. They will go through growing pains, and it will take time, but I think the Dukes will be a very strong team again sooner rather than later.

Naturally the freshmen have made some mistakes, and Withers said that may be a reason for some of the slow starts the team has endured in the first three games.

However, they have also made some big plays for JMU this year. Most notably, true freshman cornerback Jimmy Moreland has 11 tackles, two interceptions and blocked a potential game-tying field goal in the final minute against Lehigh. Also, true freshman Aaron Peak has a team-best 26 tackles, including two forced fumbles. True freshman running back John Miller has 177 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

Strasburg graduate Jonathan Kloosterman is also a true freshman and has played in all three games as a tight end. He is the back-up tight end behind junior Deane Cheatham. Kloosterman will have the chance to learn the system and what it’s like to play at the FCS level, without having to put up big numbers. That will allow him the chance to flourish in future years, which is something I think a lot of the freshmen will do.

The group of freshmen seem to have the ability to make plays, which is why Withers said he recruited them. He wants to have a team full of playmakers, and that could pay big dividends for the Dukes down the road.

“We’re going to play a bunch of freshmen and we’re going to continue to play more,” Withers said. “I just think it’s the way to go and to build this program and get a foundation with the program. From day one, we’ve been saying this is a journey. We knew this was the way it was going to be from day one when we started constructing this culture. This is exactly what we thought.”

The Dukes are 2-1 as they enter CAA play this weekend. They may struggle some this season in a very brutal conference, but as the young players continue to get better the future could get brighter and brighter.

If the record isn’t what JMU fans want this season, hopefully they’ll remember that sometimes success takes time and patience can be rewarded in big ways.

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