Seniors play key role in success for Dukes

JMU's Gage Steele (33) makes a tackle against North Dakota State on Dec. 16 in Fargo, North Dakota. Steele is one of 13 seniors who have helped lead the Dukes to the FCS championship game. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG — When asked why James Madison University’s football team has had such a turnaround in the playoffs this season, first-year head coach Mike Houston singles out one group of individuals — the seniors.

Houston said it’s been the leadership of the senior class that has led to the strong playoff run and 13-1 record.

“It was a divided team when we got here,” Houston said. “But their leadership in bringing that team together, and really sticking to the course, and not questioning kind of the things they were being asked to do on a daily basis has been really the key to us being here. Because now all of a sudden, less than another year later, you have a tight knit unified locker room as you will ever see. In that locker room, those kids truly care about each other. They understand about being accountable to each other, and I think those seniors and their leadership is really the key to all that.”

JMU will play Youngstown State University at noon Saturday in the Football Championship Subdivision game in Frisco, Texas.

The Dukes have 13 seniors on the roster, including eight redshirt seniors who have been with the program for five years.

The seniors were all recruited by former JMU head coach Mickey Matthews, who was fired in December 2013. Matthews was replaced by Everett Withers, who left after last season to take the head coach position at Texas State University.

Houston said the senior class, which includes redshirt senior linebacker and Warren County graduate Gage Steele, has handled all the changes really well.

“You go back to when I was hired the first day of January, I remember I addressed them, talked to them about what had happened to them was not fair,” Houston said. “You don’t go sign to play college football and all of a sudden you’re going to have a different head coach virtually every year you’re there. Virtually a different position coach every year you’re there, and it’s not fair what they had to go through. At the same time I suggested to them, both them and I chose JMU. I said we’re in this thing together and appealed to them just to buy into myself, our staff and what we’re trying to do and each other in that room.”

Houston said the seniors did buy into him and his staff and the rest of the team followed.

One of the biggest problems Houston said he saw when he took over was how divided the locker room was. He said the defense lacked confidence and discipline, while the offense believed they were the reason the team was having success.

That helped lead to back-to-back years where the Dukes lost in their first playoff game. Last year the team was seeded fifth in the playoffs and was upset by Colgate University in the second round after having a bye in the first round.

This year as the No. 4 seed, the Dukes have won three playoff games by an average of 33.7 points per contest.

The seniors have played a big role in the team’s success on the field this year. Running back Khalid Abdullah leads the team with 1,708 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. Wide receiver Brandon Ravenel has a team-best 45 receptions for 720 yards and five scores. Matt Frank, Mitch Kirsch and Kyle Rigney have led a steady offensive line that has helped produce one of the top-ranked offenses in FCS. Steele leads the team in tackles with 98, while Taylor Reynolds has 51 tackles and two interceptions.

JMU senior running back Khalid Abdullah said that Houston’s coaching style has made it easier for the players to buy into him and his staff.

“The thing I like about coach Houston the most is he tries to build us as young men,” Abdullah said. “It’s not all about the x’s and o’s. It’s not always about football. He tries to instill a faith in us. He tries to instill how to be a man and how to do things on your own, just being a man in society. And I think that’s something that a lot of coaches look over in today’s game.”

Houston said he couldn’t be more proud of the senior class and the team as a whole for buying into the culture the coaches wanted to create. He said the players are closer than any team he’s ever coached.

“I’ve taken over three programs at the college level, better than anywhere I’ve ever been, this group from day one bought in,” Houston said. “They believed in us and have done what we have asked them to do on a daily basis. Their commitment to doing things right and doing it on a consistent basis has resulted in us being here.”

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