JMU faces big test against East Carolina

JMU quarterback Bryan Schor prepares to make a pass in a game last season. Schor and the Dukes open their season tonight at East Carolina University. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG — The reigning Football Championship Subdivision national champions will have quite a challenge when they open their season.

James Madison University opens on the road tonight at East Carolina University, a Football Bowl Subdivision school.

Head coach Mike Houston said facing any FBS school is a big challenge. FBS schools have 85 scholarship athletes, while JMU has only 63. He said depth could be a factor and an edge for ECU.

“I saw something the other day where they have 14 D-lineman they are prepared to play (today),” Houston said earlier this week. “I don’t have 14 D-lineman on the roster, let alone 14 that can play. I just think you could see maybe in the second half (depth) be a factor. We hope it’s not. Our players have trained very hard this summer with their conditioning. I think that’s something that was probably a strength last year of this ball club.”

One of the biggest obstacles JMU will face is the strong offense of ECU, led by the passing game.

The Pirates, who play in the American Athletic Conference, have several stellar wideouts led by senior Jimmy Williams.

Last year, Williams had 45 receptions for 818 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Quay Johnson had 58 receptions for 563 yards and three scores. Senior wide receiver Davon Grayson will also be a deep threat for the Pirates.

“I think they’ve got three very, very dynamic players,” Houston said. “And they all three have big play potential. And I think we will be challenged on Saturday to try to contain them and prevent giving up the explosive play. And I think that could be one of the big factors in the ball game.”

ECU quarterback Gardner Minshew threw for 1,347 yards last season in a back-up role. He won the starting job in the preseason over Duke University transfer Thomas Sirk.

“You look at his film from last year and he did a lot of positive things last year. He’s obviously very talented,” Houston said. “Certainly he is surrounded by a lot of weapons. So that is going to make him at the very least extremely dangerous to us because of who he has to deliver the ball to. I think he’s a talented quarterback. And I’m sure he’s excited to get out there and get on the field and play, especially with the cast he has around him.”

It could help JMU that the Dukes offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick knows the offense and the receivers well. Kirkpatrick was the wide receivers coach at ECU for 11 years before coming to JMU last season.

ECU finished 3-9 last year, but Houston said they are definitely much improved this season.

The Dukes return eight players from last year’s defense, which should help them against ECU’s high-powered offense.

JMU also has plenty of returning players on offense led by senior quarterback Bryan Schor.

Last year, Schor threw for 3,002 yards with a FCS-best 73.1 completion percentage. He threw 29 touchdown passes and also had 569 rushing yards and 10 scores.

The Dukes also have plenty of depth at running back. JMU redshirt senior Cardon Johnson had 704 yards last year in nine games, before being sidelined by injury. Junior Trai Sharp (617 rushing yards in 2016) and senior Taylor Woods (240 rushing yards in 2016) also return for the Dukes.

JMU has also added Georgia Tech transfer Marcus Marshall to its stable of running backs. Marshall had 624 rushing yards for the Yellow Jackets a year ago.

Gerren Butler, a 2015 Skyline graduate, will make his first career start at right guard for the Dukes tonight. Butler, a redshirt sophomore played in seven games last year.

Houston said the Pirates’ defensive front will be a tough challenge for JMU’s young offensive line. The Dukes have two seniors and three sophomores starting on the offensive line.

“I think that they’re athleticism will be something that we’ll have to be able to combat,” Houston said. “And their aggression will have to be something that we’ll have to be ready for.”

Houston said with it being the first game he doesn’t know for sure what his team will be like this season. However, he said one thing he really likes about the team is how close they are and how strong the team chemistry is, much like last year’s team.

“They spend so much time together you can’t help but be close,” Houston said. “And there is a strong nucleus of older players that is back. And so I think there’s a certain standard, an expectation for the way you go about doing things, if you’re going to be in that locker room. And I think that’s carried over from this past season.”