Withers has solid first year at JMU

HARRISONBURG — There was a very somber mood around James Madison University’s locker room after their season-ending playoff loss on Saturday. There were also plenty of reasons for optimism for the future.

JMU head football coach Everett Withers took over the program 11 months ago, and it’s clear in his first year he’s turned things around. Withers gave a lot of that credit to the 17 seniors.

“I think we’ve got a good foundation,” Withers said. “You come in new to a program, you try to instill a new way of doing things, not necessarily a new way, but a way you think is successful in doing things. When you got a number of seniors that buy in, it always helps the younger guys kind of understand what’s going on.”

Things didn’t start off so well for JMU this season, which led to a 2-3 record. Then something clicked and the Dukes found ways to win game after game.

JMU won seven straight games to end the regular season, and finished the last regular season poll at No. 15. The Dukes finished third in a very tough Colonial Athletic Association, and had their first home playoff game since 2008.

“I’m very proud of what this team accomplished,” JMU sophomore wide receiver Brandon Ravenel said. “It was definitely a rough road, a rough start. The guys that bought in, stayed, and went through it, we got really close. We knew what we wanted. All the coaches came in and did a great job and created really personal bonds. I can go and talk to any of the coaches about any problem that I have.”

The Dukes’ high-powered offense averaged 35.7 points per game and 484.6 yards per game. The young defense was shaky at times, but got better as the season went along.

JMU should have plenty of key players returning, including redshirt junior quarterback Vad Lee. The Georgia Tech transfer finished with 3,462 yards passing and 30 touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 826 yards and nine scores.

Lee said he felt like the team were the underdogs all season long.

“Everybody said we couldn’t do what we did this year, that’s including everybody except the guys in this locker room,” Lee said of JMU’s season. “So I feel like this is a step forward.”

The Dukes had seven seniors start on offense on Saturday, and that’s where they will have the most to replace next year. Only three seniors started on defense, while the Dukes had four freshmen start on that side of the ball.

Withers talked all season about starting a new culture, and it’s pretty clear that the players bought into that. Even the seniors said they gained a lot from their final season at JMU.

“It’s been a lovely journey, I would say,” JMU senior safety Dean Marlowe said. “I’ve learned so much from the whole new staff coming in since January. [The players coming back] they have a great future ahead of them with this program.”

Withers said he was pleased with the first year, and excited for the future of the program.

“I feel like we got a good nucleus,” Withers said. “I’m going to hit the road and recruit next week, and go try to find some dudes.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com