JMU’s secondary key to top-ranked defense

JMU's Jordan Brown (44) intercepts a pass during the Dukes game against Villanova last season. Brown has a team-best seven interceptions this season. JMU leads the Football Championship Subdivision this season with 24 interceptions.

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University had its entire starting secondary receive All-Colonial Athletic Conference honors this season. In last weekend’s playoff victory over Stony Brook, JMU’s secondary showed just how deserving their conference honors were.

The Dukes had five interceptions, one each from five different players, as the defense put together another dominating performance. JMU head football coach Mike Houston said JMU’s secondary has had a very special season.

“The regular season they just put together is one of the best regular seasons, probably in CAA history, and maybe in (Football Championship Subdivision) history,” Houston said. “But it all goes back to the same fundamental stuff, being sound. It’s just being disciplined and doing their job, trusting their teammates to do their job. And it’s the preparation. It’s the physicality. It’s the belief in each other. And it’s everybody being on the same page.”

JMU (12-0) hosts Weber State (10-3) in the FCS quarterfinals at 7 p.m., Friday.

The Dukes have an FCS-best 24 interceptions in 12 games, led by senior safety Jordan Brown with seven.

JMU redshirt junior cornerback Jimmy Moreland, who has five interceptions, said everybody pushes each other to be the best that they can be.

“It gets competitive sometimes,” Moreland said. “Say Jordan (Brown) makes all the interceptions one week, he’s going to be talking all week until somebody else make the interceptions the next week. But we’re all there for each other’s accomplishments. I think as a whole we all know that we’re going to be one of the greatest secondaries that ever (played) in our school history. So we’re very close together and we love each other.”

Brown, Moreland, Curtis Oliver, Rashad Robinson and Raven Greene get the bulk of the playing time in the secondary. The five combined for 23 of the team’s 24 interceptions this season, including all five in the win over Stony Brook.

Moreland, Oliver and Robinson are juniors, while Brown and Greene are seniors.

Moreland said the group has been playing together for several years now and that’s part of the reason they have such good chemistry on the field.

“Everybody knows where everybody’s at,” Moreland said. “It helps just knowing that my brother’s got my back over the top. I know I can play a little more aggressive here and there.”

It’s the second year for the group under JMU defensive coordinator Bob Trott. Moreland said being in the second year in the same system has helped the team this season. JMU plays man coverage, which forces the secondary to have to make plays in one-on-one match-ups with receivers. Houston said the Dukes use a lot of different types of man coverages, which can be hard to learn.

Houston said that during the second half of last season he really started to see a difference in the way the secondary was playing.

“I think coach Trott and (JMU secondary) coach (Tripp) Weaver do a great job with fundamentally teaching those kids,” Houston said. “There’s an art to learning how to play man coverage. … There’s a lot of intricacies and teaching points in every one of those (man coverages). And I think our kids have worked very, very hard to learn how to do that. And I think that the coaching staff there has done a great job of teaching that.”

Sam Houston State University had the top-ranked passing offense in the country last season. JMU’s secondary was able to shut down Sam Houston State’s passing game in a rout in the playoffs last season.

The secondary goes hand-in-hand with the rest of JMU’s defense. JMU’s ability to play man coverage allows the Dukes’ defensive lineman and linebackers the ability to focus on stopping the run.

Moreland said the play of JMU’s defensive line has a big effect on the play of the secondary.

“We know we just got to lock in and do our jobs, because we have a great defensive line,” Moreland said. “And we know they can get an amazing pass rush. If we hold our man for more than like three or four seconds the quarterback is going to have a lot of pressure. So we just got to lock in and do our jobs.”

Houston said that most of JMU’s interceptions against Stony Brook happened because Seawolves’ quarterback Joe Carbone wasn’t stepping into his throws because he was trying to avoid JMU’s defensive pressure.

The Dukes have the No. 1 ranked defense in Football Championship Subdivision. They are allowing just 8.8 points and 235.1 yards per game.

JMU redshirt senior defensive lineman Andrew Ankrah said that he enjoys playing on the defense with the secondary and seeing them make plays.

“Those guys are so fired up, pumped up every game,” Ankrah said. “You go into a game knowing they’re going to give you their best shot. I’m blessed to be able to play on such a great defense like this.”