JMU football notebook: Johnson shows potential in victory

HARRISONBURG – James Madison University head football coach Mike Houston has known all season that true freshman Cole Johnson had the ability to be special, and this past week JMU fans got a glimpse of it.

Johnson went 12-for-13 for 274 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start, as he filled in for injured junior quarterback Bryan Schor. Johnson was named the Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Week on Monday.

“I told (JMU athletic director) Jeff Bourne back during the preseason that Cole Johnson was going to be a star one day,” Houston said. “And we did not expect it to be this year, but you could see why we’ve all been so excited about him.”

The 6-foot-5 Johnson was expected to redshirt this season, but when Schor was injured in a victory over Villanova on Nov. 12, Johnson entered the game to lead the Dukes to a win.

Johnson said he felt more comfortable in his first start after having a week of practice, and he’s just happy to help the team.

“I did go into the season thinking I was going to redshirt,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of the next man up mentality, and I really feel I have a good understanding of everything. So I went in there and I feel like I’m better prepared and definitely feel that it’s great that I can contribute to the CAA title.”

Houston said one of Johnson’s biggest strengths is his intelligence. He said Johnson was able to make a lot of correct reads at the line of scrimmage in the victory over Elon.

Houston said Johnson’s other big strength is his accuracy.

“That was evident (Saturday), 12 of 13 passing,” Houston said of Johnson’s accuracy. “And the way he was putting the ball on the receivers all day long. I think that’s certainly something that we saw back during the preseason camp.”

Special seniors: JMU honored 13 seniors on senior day in the victory over Elon.

Houston said the seniors have had a lot to do with the success of the team this season.

“I attribute the perfomance of this team this year to our group of seniors,” Houston said. “The way they have bought into our coaching staff. The way they’ve been loyal to us and tried to go out and do everything we asked them to do since we got here back in January. I think their ability to keep our team together, to lead them really has resulted in tremendous team unity. A group that is as tight as maybe any team that I’ve ever had.”

One of the seniors is linebacker Gage Steele. The Warren County graduate said it was a special day for the seniors, but they tried to stay focused and make sure the team got the win.

“I tried to play it as a regular game,” Steele said after Saturday’s game. “It was a little extra special just because this was the last regular season game. But I took it as I’m going to go out here and play the hardest I can for my team and that’s how the rest of the seniors wanted to do it as well. This is a special day for us. We’ve come so far and we just want to celebrate as a family, and really look back on this time and realize where we’ve came from and how much we’ve accomplished.”

Running back depth: The Dukes showed in the victory over Elon they not only have depth at quarterback but also running back.

JMU redshirt junior Cardon Johnson has missed several games due to injury, but sophomores Trai Sharp and Taylor Woods have stepped up and helped out.

Sharp ran for 80 yards on 13 carries and one touchdown, while Woods had 80 yards on six carries and a score out of the wildcat formation. The Dukes also used wide receiver John Miller at running back and he had 34 yards on three carries.

JMU finished with 362 rushing yards, including 125 from starter Khalid Abdullah.

“I think Khalid obviously is the lead guy, but we didn’t hesitate (Saturday) to use Trai,” Houston said. “Trai played a lot. Trai played just as much as Khalid did (Saturday) and then Taylor with what he did. I think we have a lot of depth there at that position, which we’re going to need if we want to make a run the way we want to in the national playoffs.”

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