2019 CAA Preview: James Madison Dukes

Inside The Rise Of Curt Cignetti

Common fairy tale tropes depict the journey of a brave knight tasked with slaying a menacing monster, like an ogre or dragon. In the FCS, the most imposing force is instead a Bison, and the last conquerors to fell it were not Knights, but rather Dukes. 

James Madison snapped North Dakota State’s streak at five consecutive national championships in the 2016 Playoffs en route to the Dukes’ first title since 2004. North Dakota State has since returned to the mountaintop each of the past two years, including exacting revenge against James Madison in the 2017 season’s title game. 

Heading into 2019, pollsters from a variety of sources tab the Dukes the most likely challenger to North Dakota State’s dominance once again, ranking them No. 2 nationally. Reclaiming the crown is certainly a viable goal for James Madison, but it must first chart through the arduous journey of the Colonial Athletic Association season under first-year head coach Curt Cignetti. 

Cignetti comes to James Madison with a wealth of head coaching experience, establishing Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a Div. II power this decade before reaching the FCS Playoffs in two seasons at Elon. 

The son of College Football Hall of Famer Frank Cignetti Sr. inherits a team that is loaded on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams. 

“You expect expectations at JMU,” Cignetti said at CAA media day. “There’s a lot of that out there: social media, national championship, this and that. At the end of the day, you don’t win a national championship; you do the things you have to do to become the best you can be, put yourself in the best position for success, and you’re the last man standing. 

“That’s what we want to be: the last man standing.”   


Head Coach: Curt Cignetti (first year at James Madison; ninth season overall, 67-26) 

Offensive Coordinator: Shane Montgomery

Defensive Coordinator: Corey Hetherman  

2018 Record: 9-4, 6-2 CAA 

2019 Preseason Poll: 1st place, 238 points; 20 first-place votes 


Defense 

Tenth in the nation against the run (104.4 yards allowed per game); sixth in points allowed per game (14.6). These impressive statistics only begin to tell a part of the story of James Madison’s stellar defense in 2018. 

Heading into 2019, the number that might best illuminate the Dukes’ outlook is four: That’s how many All-CAA performers James Madison has on that side of the ball with defensive end Ron’Dell Carter, linebacker Dimitri Holloway, safety Adam Smith, and cornerback Rashad Robinson. 

A new coordinator oversees the abundance of talent in purple-and-gold, but he’s not unfamiliar with standout defenses in the CAA: Corey Hetherman spent the past three seasons operating Maine’s vaunted Black Hole Defense. 

Isaac Ukwu, who Cignetti said he expected a “big year” from, is out due to injury, which will test the Dukes' depth on the line. However, Temple transfer Antonio Colclough could step in. 

Offense

With a new coaching staff coming to town, no positions were guaranteed from the season before. That translates to a quarterback competition in the offseason between Ben DiNucci – the Dukes' 2018 starter – and Cole Johnson. DiNucci was not announced as the Week 1 starter until less than two weeks before the opener against West Virginia.

Cignetti said DiNucci “by his performance, earned it…so there’s really no change. He’s a veteran guy with experience.” 

The new Dukes coach added DiNucci is “committed to up his game another notch.” Last season, the Dukes averaged 33.9 points per game, second-most in the Colonial, but DiNucci struggled with giveaways (he had 12 interceptions against 16 touchdowns). The return of leading pass-catchers Riley Stapleton and Kyndel Dean sets the tone for the passing game. 

Improvement through the air should be paramount for James Madison to meet its lofty expectations, particularly in the early season with three standout ball-carriers gone. DiNucci, with 433 yards and nine touchdowns, is the leading returning rusher. Percy Agyei-Obese rushed for 168 yards on just 18 touches. He’s a potential breakout performer operating behind a line with All-CAA honoree Liam Fornadel. 

Special Teams

Punter Harry O’Kelly helped set the table for James Madison’s excellent defense a season ago with a remarkable 24 punts pinned inside the 20-yard line – almost half of all his kicks. The Dukes also bring back placekicker Ethan Ratke, who was 17-of-19 on field-goal attempts a season ago.

D’Angelo Amos was the CAA 1st Team selection at punt returner, and with good reason: He took three to the house in 2018, including two in one game. He averaged a whopping 22 yards per punt return to lead the nation. 

The Schedule

@ West Virginia, Aug. 31: The Cignetti family roots run deep in Morgantown. Frank Sr. spent six seasons as an assistant coach to Bobby Bowden at West Virginia from 1970-1975, then took over as head coach in 1976. His tenure concluded in 1979, the same season Curt came aboard as a member of the Mountaineers team.

James Madison boasts wins over FBS opponents in two of the last four seasons. The program’s last win over a Power Five conference member came against nationally ranked Virginia Tech in 2010.

Saint Francis, Sept. 7: Saint Francis won the Northeast Conference in 2016 but finished below .500 in each of the last two seasons. James Madison pasted the Red Flash’s NEC counterpart Robert Morris last season, 73-7. Saint Francis is tabbed to finish sixth in the NEC this season.

Morgan State, Sept. 14: These two programs have played just once in program history: a 76-7 James Madison romp in 1995. No one playing in this installment was born yet – including standout Morgan State tight end Xavier Gravette.

@ Chattanooga, Sept. 21: James Madison returns to the site of its 2004 national championship win over Montana, Finley Stadium in Chattanooga. The Mocs were picked to finish fourth in the SoCon preseason poll but feature a talented defense with three preseason All-Conference selections in linebacker Marshall Cooper, and defensive backs Brandon Dowdell and Jerrell Lawson.

@ Elon*, Sept. 28: A trio of scoring opportunities resulting only in field goals put James Madison in a tough spot against the Phoenix last season. A 74-yard Elon scoring drive in the final 4:16 put the Dukes in even worse position, as the visitors stole a 27-24 win. Running back Malcolm Summers put a rare hefty number on the Dukes' run defense; he’s replaced this season by Jaylan Thomas as Elon’s No. 1 back.

@ Stony Brook*, Oct. 5: Two of the nation’s premier defensive ends – Ron’Dell Carter and Sam Kamara – highlight this sure slugfest in New York. Last season, these squads lived up to their billing as two of the best on D in the FCS. The Dukes needed a pair of fourth-quarter field goals to survive, 13-10.

Villanova*, Oct. 12: D’Angelo Amos electrified with two punt-return touchdowns just 2:10 apart in last season’s matchup of the last two CAA programs to win national championships. The Dukes cruised, 37-0, extending their winning streak in the series to four games.

@ William & Mary*, Oct. 19: Every matchup between these in-commonwealth rivals from 2010 through 2016 was decided by no more than 10 points, and a grand total of 40 points. Each of the past two James Madison wins individual exceeded that mark: 46-14, and last year’s 51-0 romp. In new Tribe head coach Mike London’s tenure at Richmond, the Dukes and Spiders split the two matchups.

Towson*, Oct. 26: The Dukes own a commanding 11-1 record against Towson since 2004, and have lost just twice in the series since 1992. James Madison run back a dizzying 395 yards on the ground in last season’s 38-17 romp.

New Hampshire*, Nov. 9: A pair of New Hampshire pick-sixes in the first half, coupled with Trevor Knight touchdown passes, put James Madison in a 28-3 hole it could not escape. The loss snapped a three-game James Madison winning streak in the series, which included a 55-22 FCS Playoffs win en route to the Dukes’ national championship.

Richmond*, Nov. 16: The Dukes are winners in 5-of-6 against the Spiders, including last season’s historically lopsided 63-10 rout.

@ Rhode Island*, Nov. 23: Over the course of a nine-game, 16-year streak of wins over Rhode Island – which includes an 84-7 final in 2016 – last season’s 48-31 final was the closest since a 15-11 score in 2002. 

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