JMU Football Notebook: Depth at running back will be strength for Dukes this season

HARRISONBURG — Most teams like to have two or three running backs to use throughout a game; this season James Madison University will have four.

JMU head coach Mike Houston said on Tuesday at his weekly press conference he will list all four running backs on his two-deep depth chart. He said he will use all four in this week’s game against East Carolina University.

Redshirt senior Cardon Johnson, junior Trai Sharp, senior Taylor Woods and junior Marcus Marshall will split the running back duties.

“Any one of those four is capable of being a starter in our league,” Houston said. “And I think we’re fortunate to have all four on our roster. And I’m excited to see them get out there and play.”

Johnson is coming back from a season-ending injury suffered midway through last season. He has 1,741 rushing yards in his career, including 704 yards last year in nine games.

Sharp had 617 yards rushing last season with five touchdowns. Woods had 240 yards rushing last year and five touchdowns.

Marshall, transferred from Georgia Tech last December. He led the Yellow Jackets with 624 rushing yards last year and four touchdowns.

Marshall will also be returning kicks for the Dukes this season.

Houston said that last year he was a little hesitant to use the running backs on special teams due to the lack of depth. He said that mindset will change this year.

“You’re going to see a lot of them on special teams,” Houston said. “And you’re going to see a lot of them used in different ways because we are fortunate to have that depth.”

FIRST START: Skyline graduate Gerren Butler will get his first start on the offensive line this week.

The 6-foot-2, 315-pound Butler will start at right guard. The redshirt sophomore played in seven games last season.

Butler and redshirt sophomore Jahee Jackson will each be getting their first start and Houston said he’s excited to see how they do.

“I think we have a couple guys that have been in the program a few years and have grown up a lot. They’ve grown up a lot since I’ve met them,” Houston said. “I think they’re motivated and excited about their opportunity to go out and be in the starting lineup.”

The pair will start along side sophomore center Mac Patrick, redshirt senior left guard A.J. Bolden and redshirt senior left tackle Aaron Stinnie.

Bolden and Stinnie each started all 15 games last season. Patrick played in eight games, including the entire second half of the Football Championship Subdivision national semifinal game against North Dakota State, after then starter Kyle Rigney suffered an injury. Rigney is now an assistant coach with the Dukes working with the offensive line.

Houston said that he expects several players to rotate in and out of the offensive line. He said he expects true freshman Liam Fornadel and redshirt freshman Zaire Bethea to also see playing time on the offensive line Saturday.

“It’s a thing where you have Aaron Stinnie and A.J. Bolden, kind of the old hats in the room. And they’ve got all the experience of however many starts that they have under their belt,” Houston said. “And you got Mac Patrick who got experience last year in the playoffs. And then you got new pieces at guard and tackle coming in there. So we’re all excited to see how that whole group is going to jell together and play together Saturday night.”

STRENGTH AT SPECIAL TEAMS: Special teams was a big strength for JMU last year, and Houston said he’s hopeful that will be the case again this season.

The Dukes have a new special teams coach in Roy Tesh, who replaces John Bowers. It is the fourth school at which Tesh has worked with Houston.

“He’s done a good job of taking everything that we’ve done in the past and we got some new wrinkles,” Houston said. “We got some changes. I’m a big believer in Roy Tesh and his abilities. And I know that he’ll do an outstanding job with our special teams unit.”

Last year, the Dukes had six touchdowns on punt returns and one on kickoff returns.

Houston said that East Carolina also has a very good special teams unit, and special teams could be a key to the game.

“I told the players that the special teams may be one of the critical factors Saturday night in that ball game,” Houston said.