Football Preview 2016: Dukes have lots of potential in Houston’s first year

James Madison University redshirt senior linebacker and Warren County graduate Gage Steele prepares for a snap against Richmond last season. Steele and the Dukes will begin regular season play on Sept. 3. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University’s football team may be going through its third coach in four years, but the potential is as bright as ever for the Dukes.

First-year JMU coach Mike Houston has taken over for former coach Everett Withers, who left to become head coach at Texas State. Houston, who was the head coach at The Citadel last year, has inherited and recruited another strong team.

JMU junior tight end and Strasburg graduate Jonathan Kloosterman said that the team just needs to work together and it can be successful.

“I think we got a lot of potential, but potential don’t mean nothing unless you put it together,” Kloosterman said. “We’re out here every day just working hard. So I feel great about what we can achieve this year.”

JMU was co-Colonial Athletic Association champions last year, and finished 9-3 on the season. They had a first-round bye in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and lost in the second round to Colgate.

One of the areas that’s hurt the Dukes in the last two seasons has been the play of the defense.

This season under new defensive coordinator Bob Trott the Dukes will be using a 4-2-5.

“We’re getting better. It’s a process,” Trott said. “I’ve said since Day 1 that the guys have been great. They’re buying into it. …We’re trying to bring our culture that we know, but you’re sensitive to these players. This is not the first time I’ve taken over a program that’s had three coaches in four years. So it’s a two-way street that we understand what the players are going through, and they understand what we’re doing. And all I know is if we work together and we do well we all prosper.”

Certainly a key cog in the Dukes’ success will be JMU redshirt senior linebacker Gage Steele. The Warren County graduate was second on the team with 89 tackles last season.

The team’s leading tackler last year, Kyre Hawkins (95), is also back at linebacker.

In fact, the Dukes return eight of their top nine tacklers from last season.

“I feel like we have a defense that’s bought in,” Steele said. “We have a lot of veterans that have been though a couple of the coaching staffs and different defenses, and so they’re bought into this defense and it’s going to help us out during the season. We’re really liking how its feeling and where it’s taken us right now.”

Senior Raven Greene and redshirt senior Taylor Reynolds and junior Marcell Johnson will be expected to lead the way in the secondary.

The Dukes should also be solid on the defensive line, with redshirt juniors Andrew Ankrah and Brandon Brown looking to lead the way.

The Dukes could be just as potent on offense this season as they were last year when they averaged 44.25 points per game.

The biggest question mark is who will be the starting quarterback. Junior Bryan Schor and redshirt junior Connor Mitch are battling for the spot.

Mitch transferred from the University of South Carolina in July. Mitch started last year for the Gamecocks to start the season, but suffered a season-ending injury in the second game.

Schor was JMU’s back-up and became the starter when Vad Lee suffered a season-ending injury late in the season. Schor started the last four games of the season, and threw for 847 yards and seven touchdown passes during the year.

“We have a great competition going on, which is good — it’s making them both better,” JMU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said.

Running backs Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah are also returning for the Dukes this season. Johnson, a redshirt junior, ran for a team-best 1,037 yards last year. Abdullah, a senior, rushed for 975 yards last season.

The Dukes also have a talented group of wide receivers, including seniors Brandon Ravenel, Rashard Davis, Domo Taylor and redshirt junior Ishmael Hyman. The Dukes have also added Terrance Alls, a redshirt junior who transferred from Duke University.

Kloosterman, who had eight receptions for 77 yards and one touchdown, will take over the starting tight end role.

The offensive line will be led by redshirt seniors Matt Frank and Mitchell Kirsch and redshirt junior Aaron Stennie.

Skyline graduate Gerren Butler is the back-up center, and Kirkpatrick said that he’s been pleased by what he’s seen from Butler.

“He’s really a good blocker and really a physical player,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s a linebacker moved to offensive line. So it’s not a natural position for him, but he can be a great one. When you can take a linebacker and get him big enough to be a center you can have a special player there.”

Redshirt senior Gunnar Kane will be doing the punting again this season. Sophomore and Millbrook graduate Tyler Gray is in a battle for the placekicking duties along with junior Pat Frio, who transferred from Lackawanna College, and freshman Jeremiah McBride.

The Dukes have lost in their first playoff game two years in a row, and Steele said that only serves as extra motivation for this season.

“We definitely don’t want to get to the first round of playoffs and then have that be done for us,” Steele said. “We want to go as far as possible. But we’re going to take it one game at a time, focus on that one game, because it’s the next game and with that it will bring us as far as we want it to.”

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