Keeler: Dukes headed in right direction

For the first part of the season I wasn’t really sure what to make of James Madison University’s football team.

But after watching the Dukes’ performance last week against Towson, I think it’s safe to say JMU is improving and headed in the right direction.

For the most part JMU has not looked good on defense this season. Over the years the program has been known for its strong defensive play, but this year things were simply not clicking.

Entering last week’s game against Towson, the Dukes were allowing an average of 34.8 points and 473.5 yards per game. Ouch. It’s a little hard to win games with numbers like those.

The Dukes turned things completely around against Towson last week, holding them to only 234 yards total, and only 67 on the ground. It could be that Towson’s offense is just awful, which it is, but I also think that JMU is getting better on defense. I think if they continue to improve on that side of the ball, the Dukes have a chance at a solid record and maybe an outside chance at a playoff berth.

Two weeks ago in a win over Albany, the Dukes had to play with three freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary. They made some mistakes, but I think with each game the young guys are learning and getting better.

The Dukes have played 21 freshman, including 11 true freshman. Most of those, 13, came on the defensive side of the ball. There are three freshman starting, and nine that are on the two-deep chart for the Dukes on defense. I think the Dukes will certainly benefit from that for years to come.

Another factor on defense has been the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. I think it’s taken JMU’s defensive line a little time to get used to that. JMU redshirt sophomore linebacker and Warren County graduate Gage Steele also missed some time with a hip injury. Now that he’s back at full strength, he’s playing well and so are the guys around him.

If the defense can continue to improve JMU will be tough to beat, because the offense has shown they can put up points.

JMU is averaging 31.0 points per game. They even scored 31 against a Villanova squad that is ranked in the top five in the country in one of the FCS polls.

The Dukes are averaging 488.4 yards of offense, and had 553 against Towson. JMU used its subs throughout the fourth quarter and still scored 21 points against the Tigers, which I think shows some of the depth that the team has.

Early in the season there were rumblings from fans about JMU head coach Everett Withers. The more I watch the Dukes, the more I beginning to think the first-year coach is building a strong program and one which will succeed in time.

Withers was able to get seven Division 1-A transfers to JMU, including quarterback and Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee. The freshman that he recruited have done a solid job, considering they’re freshman. It’s pretty clear he knows how to recruit talent.

I don’t expect the stellar recruiting to change over the next few years. On Sunday, high school running back Trai Sharp (Carrboro, North Carolina) verbally committed to JMU. He picked JMU over Duke, Illinois, Purdue and Appalachian State. I’d say Withers and JMU must be doing something right.

Sharp becomes the sixth commit with at least a two-star rating. Sharp is the Dukes first three-star commit. They have 13 commits so far from the 2015 class.

The reality is that JMU’s program wasn’t in the greatest shape when Withers took over. The Dukes were a constant.500 team, and to get to where all the JMU fans and administration want and expect it to be was always going to take some time. I think it might be too early to say for sure if Withers will take it where everyone wants it to go, but it’s very clear the program is going forward and getting better.

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