I have a healthy respect for James Madison’s program—it’s kind of hard not to, given what the Dukes have done over the last two seasons. They have multiple players who could end up earning either all-conference or FCS All-American honors this season. They have 10 players who began their careers at FBS schools.
But I don’t think there’s any question that they are more flawed this season than they were last year. Which doesn’t mean they won’t be very good—they will—but their limitations I think will make it really tough for them to get out of Raleigh with a win on Saturday.
1.) The Dukes have a lot of inexperience at receiver.
Riley Stapleton and David Eldridge both caught 42 balls last season, and they’re back, but that’s about the sum total of the proven experience here. The three other wide receivers who caught at least 10 passes in 2017 are gone.
JMU lists seven wide receivers across three slots on its depth chart, and four are freshmen. Another is a sophomore. How much can JMU reasonably expect to get from those guys, most of whom will be playing in their first college game?
2.) JMU’s quarterbacks probably aren’t good enough to keep NC State honest.
Whether it’s Pitt transfer Ben DiNucci or junior Cole Johnson, there’s a lot to be skeptical about here. DiNucci was not impressive for the Panthers last season, managing only five touchdown passes against five picks. He also completed a modest 56% of his throws. Will he be better against FCS defenses? Sure. Better, though, against NC State than the guy we saw in Pittsburgh last fall? I’m doubtful.
And Johnson has played sparingly as a reserve over the last two seasons. He’s never been a regular starter. He’s a total wildcard.
Between those guys and a potential thin layer of credible receiving targets, it’s hard to envision the Dukes’ passing game presenting a significant problem to the Wolfpack secondary. I don’t expect they’ll be able to stretch the field consistently, and I also don’t trust the quarterbacks to fully take advantage of all of the opportunities they get.
And if the Dukes reach a point where they feel like they can only trust a couple of receivers, they run the danger of some forced passes into a defense that will start to key on those targets, which is when mistakes become a real threat.
3.) JMU needs a decent passing game to establish its preference offensively, which is running the ball.
James Madison ran the ball about 59% of the time in 2017, and that was with an experienced, above-average quarterback. The Dukes have an excellent group of running backs—this is easily their strength—but given all that I laid out above, it may be tough to open things up for their backs.
This is where things can all kind of crumble together: if JMU can’t force the Wolfpack to respect its receiving threats, State will increasingly pack the box and bring run blitzes, and as JMU may find itself in far more passing situations than it would like.
4.) The James Madison front seven is small.
This is often the most obvious difference between an FCS team and an FBS one. I’ve spent some time already on defensive end Darrious Carter, who is a talented pass rusher, but weighs only 229 pounds. How’s he going to hold up against the run? The guy behind him on the depth chart weighs 227.
At DT, JMU’s second stringers run 254 and 249. At one linebacker spot, the starter is 6’1 and 223 pounds, while his backup is only 212. They also have a hybrid LB/DB spot where there starter is only 186 pounds.
If the Dukes get pushed around too much in their base defense, they’ll have to start putting safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, which creates some obvious problems against NC State’s passing game.
Ultimately, I think all this means that the Dukes won’t be in this game come the fourth quarter, assuming of course that NC State doesn’t shoot itself in the foot with turnovers and other significant mistakes. That’s always a worry in week one.