Dukes kick off 2015 season against Morehead State

In Everett Withers’ second year as head coach of James Madison University’s football team he is looking for his squad to take even more steps in becoming a true program.

As the Dukes get ready to face Morehead State at 6 p.m. today in the season opener, Withers said he feels good about the preseason the team had and what the team can achieve this season.

“In year two, I think two-thirds of our team really understood what our objectives were going in,” Withers said of the Dukes’ preseason camp. “That was obviously get better as a football team fundamentally in each unit. And come together as an offense, defense and special teams to form a team that goes and competes each Saturday.”

Withers said he wants his team to be disciplined, tough, relentless and focused throughout the season.

JMU will once again rely on a high-powered offense led by senior quarterback Vad Lee.

Last year Lee threw for a school-record 3,462 yards and ran for a team-best 826 yards in his first year after transferring from Georgia Tech.

Withers said he’s happy with the depth at offensive line, which should give Lee plenty of time in the pocket. He also made some changes, including moving Matt Franks from the defensive line to the offensive line and switching Dominick Richards from tackle to center.

“We made some changes in our offensive line. We wanted to get a different body type over there,” Withers said. “We wanted to get bigger, longer and more athletic over there to do what we want to do on offense.”

The Dukes were 17th in Football Championship Subdivision last year in points, averaging 35.7 per game.

Not only do the Dukes have a solid group returning at receiver, Withers said he also feels real good about the running backs.

Withers said that redshirt sophomore Cardon Johnson, junior Khalid Abdullah, sophomore Taylor Woods and true freshman Trai Sharp should be splitting the carries this season. Sharp will not play against Morehead State due to a knee injury, but Withers said he expects him back in the next two weeks.

Withers said that both Johnson and Abdullah had a really good preseason.

“I think the competition those two bring for each other every day have made them both better,” Withers said.

Morehead State struggled defensively last year, allowing 46.3 points per game. However, Withers said he’s sure that Morehead State coach Rob Tenyer has made some adjustments defensively and they will be improved on that side of the ball.

Much like JMU, Morehead State had a very solid offense last year, averaging 29.3 points per game. Morehead State quarterback Austin Gahafer returns as does wide receiver Justin Cornwall. Gahafer threw for 2,840 yards and 23 touchdowns, and Cornwall had 35 catches for 420 yards.

“They have a very dynamic offense,” Withers said. “Coach Tenyer has done a good (job) of running that offense. It’s going to be a challenge for us defensively. They do some things, they give you some issues.”

The Dukes return some key pieces on defense, including Warren County graduate Gage Steele. The redshirt junior linebacker along with redshirt sophomore Kyre Hawkins are expected to be key cogs in the middle of the Dukes’ defense. Withers said there will also be some freshman who will see playing time at inside linebacker as well.

“We feel good about that inside backer core, not only for this year but years in the future,” Withers said. “So we’re excited.”

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