Dukes looking to improve in home opener

JMU'S Kyre Hawkins makes a tackle against Maine last season. Hawkins led the Dukes last week with 13 tackles. JMU hosts East Tennessee State University tonight at Bridgeforth Stadium. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG — Even though James Madsion University had a decisive victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision squad last week, head coach Mike Houston said he’s expecting to see his team play much better tonight.

The Dukes host East Tennessee State University at 6 p.m. in their home opener at Bridgeforth Stadium.

“This is a big week for us to grow,” Houston said. “I’ve said it many times before, football teams make their greatest improvement from week 1 to week 2. It’s your first live action. It’s the first time to stress the importance of getting mistakes corrected. There’s a lot of teaching going on.”

The Football Championship Subdivision No. 1 ranked Dukes knocked off East Carolina University on the road last week, 34-14. The Dukes had 422 yards rushing and 614 yards of total offense.

Houston said despite the 34 points, they could have had more points if not for some mistakes in the red zone on a few possessions.

JMU (1-0) only returned two starting offensive lineman from last year’s national championship team. Houston said he was pleased with how the offensive line played against a strong defensive front from ECU.

“I thought they handled it pretty well,” Houston said. “The big thing that stood out was we made some mistakes that prevented us from having more explosive plays in the running game. But the kids played really, really hard and they competed. We played a lot of players on the offensive front and I really liked their mental preparation.”

East Tennessee State (1-0) is coached by Carl Torbush, who was the head coach at the University of North Carolina from 1997-2000. Mike O’Cain is the offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers. O’Cain was the head coach at North Carolina State from 1993-99 and was JMU’s offensive coordinator in 2013.

Houston said that he knows Torbush really well. He said that Torbush was a mentor for him when he was coaching high school football in North Carolina in the 1990’s and the two have stayed in touch.

“It’s been a relationship that’s been a long-term deal,” Houston said. “He’s been someone that I would say gave me a lot of knowledge and insight when I was a young coach. And there’s probably still something that I still do today that I stole from him 20-plus years ago.”

The Buccaneers are in their third year fielding a team after not having one for over a decade.

They return 59 players from last year’s squad which went 5-6, including 24 starters. Austin Herink leads the way on offense.

Last week in a 31-10 victory over Limestone College, Herink threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s a lefty. He’s a good athlete,” Houston said of Herink. “To hear coach Torbush talk about him, he’s obviously the same kind of player in the locker room for them that (JMU quarterback) Bryan (Schor) is for us, being a leader. He talks about him not only being the leader of the offense, but the leader of the team. And so I would say that everything on the offensive side of the ball runs through the quarterback.”

Defensively, Houston said, defensive end Nasir Player, a 6-foot-6, 247-pound defensive end, stands out for the Buccaneers.

Houston said that Player could be a starter for any FCS team and many mid-major FBS teams.

“He’s a special player,” Houston said. “He’s tall, very, very talented. He plays extremely hard. Just really impressed with him, but they’ve got quality personnel defensively.”

Houston said the biggest thing about the Buccaneers’ defense is how hard they play and how well they play together.

One thing that Houston said he was really proud of in his team’s victory last week against ECU was how they stuck together when the game was close.

The Dukes struggled offensively to start the game and led 7-0 at the half, before regrouping and pulling away in the second half. He said he thought the Dukes’ experience played a key role in the win.

“Sometimes you see teams really tighten up and get frustrated and start griping at each other,” Houston said. “But our players have been through these tight ball games before. And everybody kept their cool. Nobody lost their head or anything like that. They kept fighting and stuck to the game plan.”