Tommy Keeler Jr: Unity key in Dukes’ success

HARRISONBURG — There should be a real buzz in the air on Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium.

James Madison University will host Liberty in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at 4 p.m. It is the Dukes’ first playoff game in three years, and their first home game since 2008.

The Dukes have certainly earned it. After starting the season 2-3, they have won seven straight games. Watching them all season, I think one of the more amazing things is seeing how unified they have been.

JMU head coach Everett Withers said a big part of that unity came from what the team went through in the offseason. He likes to use the words event and responses a lot when talking about the team. The coaching staff put the team through a lot of “events” which led to adversity and led to strong “responses.” That may explain why the team didn’t let a 2-3 start get them down.

“I don’t think we dropped our heads at all, because we knew we had the talent,” JMU quarterback Vad Lee said of the JMU turnaround. “We knew we had the coaches. We knew that our offseason training was so intense that we could come back from adversity.”

Lee has also played a big role in the team’s success. The Georgia Tech transfer has ignited the Dukes’ offense.

Lee has thrown for 3,323 yards and 29 touchdowns and ran for 769 yards and eight touchdowns. Any JMU opponent is aware that in order to stop JMU’s offense, it starts with finding a way to slow down Lee. So far not many teams have been able to slow down JMU’s fast-paced offense, which is averaging 36.9 points and 497 yards per game.

Not only does Lee have big-time skills, he is also a great leader for the team. Withers said he had a talk with Lee on Monday morning about his journey to JMU and this season.

“He talked about having to come in and having to strip himself of all the things that people might think about him coming in,” Withers said, “and just trying to be a part of a team and just wanting to be a teammate. He said he brought himself down from where he was at Georgia Tech to now he was just a part of the JMU football team, and he wanted to build himself up and he’s done that. He’s a very humble young man and done a great job of handling a tough situation.”

Lee wasn’t the only newcomer to the Dukes this season. Withers and his entire coaching staff were new, and it may have taken some time but it seems like they are a perfect fit.

Withers talked when he first took the job about building a culture at JMU, and it’s clear he’s off to a good start in doing that.

JMU senior wide receiver DeAndre Smith said that the senior class met with JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne and JMU associate AD for sports programs Kevin White when they began searching for a new head coach to give them input. A year later, they seem very happy with the choice.

“Coach Withers has been everything we asked for,” Smith said. “Initially I don’t think we really knew what we were asking for, because it was tough in the beginning. In the end you could say that coach Withers is everything we wanted in the coaching staff, and the way the season has gone is how we wanted the season to go.”

Another key piece to JMU’s turnaround has been the play of the defense, which really struggled early in the season. The defense is getting better with each week, as many younger players continue to gain more experience and improve.

JMU is certainly one of the hottest teams in the FCS right now, and there’s no reason to think they can’t go on a run in the postseason. No matter how the season ends, it’s just a start for the Dukes, who have only 17 seniors.

Now that the Dukes have returned to the playoffs, Withers is hopeful he can make that a regular habit in the future.

“There’s a lot of resources here. There’s a lot of fan excitement at this school about football and athletics in general,” Withers said. “I think this is a place where JMU should visit a lot in the playoffs. You have to build a foundation. How do you build that foundation? You go back and you work hard and you recruit hard, and you get good players that fit your culture. That’s what we’re trying to do. Hopefully that’s somewhere we’ll stay.”

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