JMU Football Notebook: Johnson has big game in return from injury

JMU's Cardon Johnson runs against Central Connecticut State University last season. Johnson ran for 265 yards last week against East Carolina University. JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG — Cardon Johnson couldn’t have scripted a better first game in his comeback this season.

The James Madison University redshirt senior running back had 265 yards rushing on 17 carries and two touchdowns in the Dukes’ 34-14 win over East Carolina University last weekend. Johnson missed the last five games of last season due to a torn achilles. It was the second-highest single game rushing yard total in school history.

Johnson was also named the Colonial Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week on Monday for his game against the Pirates.

“With everything that he’s been through and the injury last year, to have his season cut short and going through the surgery and the rehab and everything what a special night for him and his family and really for the team,” JMU head coach Mike Houston said in his weekly news conference Tuesday. “Because that’s a guy that was a leader last year. It was tough when he couldn’t be out there. And so I think everybody was cheering for Cardon Saturday night on our sidelines and in our locker room. And I think everybody’s very proud of him.”

Johnson was not the only Duke to win a player of the week award. JMU’s Kyre Hawkins also won the CAA Defensive Player of the Week award.

Hawkins led the JMU defense with 13 tackles, including one for a loss. JMU held ECU to just 362 total yards and forced four turnovers.

“During the offseason I talked to him about his versatility of playing inside linebacker or outside linebacker,” Houston said. “And I told him, that to me, that it was very important that we find a way to have him on the field as much as possible. And I think he exhibited exactly why Saturday night. He did a great job of being where he was supposed to be in the run game. He does a great job of pass coverage. He plays with that mindset that we want our players to play with. He’s a true competitor.”

SUCCESS UP FRONT: A key reason for JMU’s victory over East Carolina was the play of the offensive line.

The Dukes ran for 422 yards on 44 rushing attempts.

JMU lost three starters from last year’s national championship team and redshirt sophomore Tyree Chavious suffered a season-ending injury before preseason camp started. JMU’s A.J. Bolden and Aaron Stinnie were the only two returning starters on the offensive line.

Redshirt sophomores Gerren Butler and Jahee Jackson each started for the first time as did sophomore center Mac Patrick, who played in the playoffs for the Dukes last season. Redshirt freshman Zaire Bethea and true freshman Liam Fornadel also saw playing time in the victory over ECU.

“ECU was determined to try to shut down our run game and really was very aggressive from the get go,” Houston said. “But you have A.J. (Bolden) and Aaron (Stinnie) that are veteran guys, and I thought their leadership early on was really helpful. But I was really, really pleased with the way first-time starters Jahee Jackson and Gerren Butler played. I was really pleased with the way Liam Fornadel and Zaire Bethea played off the bench. And I thought Mac Patrick was steady all night long.”

Houston said ECU’s defensive line was a big test for a young, inexperienced JMU offensive line but he was proud of the way they handled things.

“To have those young players really playing in a game like that and how hard they played and how physical they played, really has us encouraged coming out of the game,” Houston said.

NEW ADDITIONS: The Dukes added a lot of new faces to the team this season both with freshman and with transfers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Many of the new faces saw playing time against ECU and had strong games.

Fornadel saw playing time on the offensive line as a true freshman. Houston said Fornadel is the most prepared true freshman offensive lineman he’s ever seen.

Running back Marcus Marshall, who transferred from Georgia Tech, had a big game in his JMU debut. He finished with 88 yards on 10 carries, including a 70-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Georgia Tech runs the triple option, and Houston said it’s taking time for Marshall to get used to a different offense.

“The big thing from (Saturday) was that’s Marcus’ first game in a zone offense,” Houston said. “So as much as you can try to emulate a game atmosphere for him, he’s still learning to see the cuts and see the holes. Whereas a veteran like Cardon (Johnson) it comes second nature to him.”

JMU wide receiver David Eldridge also had a big game for the Dukes. The University of Virginia transfer had three receptions for 51 yards.

“I was very happy with the way that he played,” Houston said of Eldridge. “David, I thought, had a really solid game at wideout. He made some big catches on third down.

“We’re really pleased with all of our first-time guys that played Saturday night.”