Longtime friends Johnson, Abdullah leading way for JMU running game

HARRISONBURG — Two years ago Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah came to James Madison University together.

The two running backs have been friends since they were younger, both coming from Newport News.  Johnson came from Warwick High School, while Abdullah came from rival Heritage High School. In Saturday’s 56-7 JMU victory over Morehead State, the pair had strong nights at tailback.

Johnson said it’s great sharing playing time with Abdullah.

“When I come off the field it’s exciting to see him go in and do well,” Johnson said. “When he goes out, he performs well and then I go back in and perform well. We get each other ready to go.”

Johnson ran for 123 yards and one touchdown, while Abdullah had 102 yards and three touchdowns against Morehead State.

JMU coach Everett Withers said Johnson, Abdullah, Taylor Woods and Trai Sharp will all split the carries this season in the Dukes’ fast-paced offense. Woods barely played against Morehead State due to injury, and Sharp did not play at all due to an ankle injury.

Johnson has missed the last two seasons due to two separate injuries.

“It’s a really great feeling,” Johnson said of playing with Abdullah. “(Knowing each other) from a young age and still together, and being able to play on the collegiate level is fantastic.”

Promising start: Things went well for new JMU defensive coordinator Steve Sisa in the season opener.

The Dukes allowed only 52 yards rushing, and 252 total yards to Morehead State. Last year the Dukes gave 29.0 points and 484.6 yards per game.

JMU linebacker and Warren County High graduate Gage Steele said the transition under a new defensive coordinator has been a smooth one.

“He’s a very knowledgeable man,” Steel said of Sisa. “I think he did a great job (against Morehead State) with the calls. I think it all went pretty crisp.”

Steele said the team is watching more film as a defense together than in the past, which has also helped.

Withers said the Dukes have more athleticism this year than last year.

“We’re better athletically than we ever were last year,” Withers said. “We have the capabilities of doing different things on defense. … We have more capability to do some things. We’re not as experienced (as last year), but were more versatile.”

Youth served: Withers has said that he likes to play true freshmen rather than redshirting them, and against Morehead State many freshmen were able to play.

JMU had 13 true freshmen play. Linebacker Dimitri Holloway finished third in team tackles with 5.5, including five solo. Linebacker Rashad Robinson had the team’s only interception.

Withers said he’s very excited about this freshman class.

“I’m bragging on these guys, because I look at the future of JMU football and I look at those guys and I go ‘wow,'” Withers said. “… I’m really, really excited about these young guys, and they’re hungry and they’re good kids.”

Skyline graduate and JMU freshman offensive lineman Gerren Butler did not dress out for the game but was on the sidelines. Withers has said in the past that true freshman offensive linemen are more likely to be redshirted than other positions.

Millbrook graduate Tyler Gray did see playing time in his first JMU game. The freshman placekicker handled seven of JMU’s nine kickoffs. Gray averaged 58.4 yards on his kickoffs. Gray had two touchbacks. JMU starting placekicker Ryan Maglio had two kickoffs, and Withers said he will continue to use both kickers in that role.

“We don’t want to overload Ryan, and Tyler’s got a strong leg,” Withers said. “We don’t want the ball kicked into the end zone. We don’t want the touchbacks, (Gray’s) got to take some of it off, but he’s a talented young man.”

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