Vanhorse Power: Freshman Running Back Is Driving JMU's Offense

HIGHLIGHTS: James Madison vs Elon

The true confirmation that a football player's move on the field was especially spectacular comes later, in the film room, when a review of the tape invokes a reaction from his teammate.

James Madison running back Solomon Vanhorse said a stiff comeback block can get the room laughing. A juke of a would-be tackler in the open field might pop teammates, too. A versatile playmaker for the second-ranked Dukes and already a two-time Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Week, Vanhorse has a varied repertoire of plays to elicit a response. 

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“You can put me in the slot, you can put me in the backfield, you can let me run iso, zone, outside zone, power,” he said. “Whatever you want me to do, I’m like a Swiss Army Knife.” 

Through his first five college games, Vanhorse’s versatility translates to five rushing touchdowns and a team-best 287 yards for a James Madison team rife with effective ball-carriers. He’s also scored a touchdown as a pass-catcher, showing off a dynamic that fits with his favorite part of the game. 

“I like getting on the edge a little bit, so I can make a little move, see if I can get somebody’s ankles on a field,” Vanhorse said. “See if I can catch somebody slipping.”

It’s been an impressive start for Vanhorse, who redshirted in the 2018 season. 

An under-recruited prospect out of Milton High School in Alpharetta, Ga., he was introduced to the college game on scout team against what Vanhorse called “one of the best defenses in the nation.” 

“You had Dimitri [Holloway], you had Jimmy [Moreland], you had KeShaun [Moore], you had Adeeb [Atariwa]. Going against them everyday … it helps your skills,” he said. “Without that, I don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing right now.” 

Those practice lessons paid immediate dividends on Vanhorse’s debut, Aug. 31 at West Virginia. 

Faced with the Mountaineers out of the Big 12 Conference, Vanhorse capped an 80-yard Dukes drive with a nine-yard touchdown run that put them ahead in the first quarter. 

“It was surreal. I didn’t know what to do in the moment,” he said. “I just wanted to celebrate with my brothers, because they’re the ones who helped me get there.”

Indeed, James Madison has stormed through four impressive wins since dropping a one-score heartbreaker in Week 1. The preseason pick to win the CAA and the second-ranked team for the duration of the 2019 season thus far, James Madison relies on a balanced approach in all facets of the game. 

Rushing distribution is no exception. 

Vanhorse currently sets the pace, but right behind him are Percy Agyei-Obese with 278 and four touchdowns; Jawon Hamilton with 216 and two scores; Latrele Palmer with 145 and two touchdowns; and quarterback Ben DiNucci with 197 yards and a touchdown. 

The heaviest workload among the five is Agyei-Obese with 56 carries; the lowest is Palmer with 18. The averages per attempt range from 4.9 to 8.1 yards. 

“Nobody cares about how many carries anyone gets,” Vanhorse said, a defining trait of a team he called a “Band of Brothers.”

The layered look James Madison shows in the running game fits within the portfolio of Dukes coach Curt Cignetti. Last season at Elon with Cignetti at the helm, five players rushed for three or more touchdowns, and the same quintet carried the ball between 55 and 115 times. 

In 2012, the best Indiana University of Pennsylvania team of Cignetti’s tenure featured a pair of rushers who broke 1,000 yards and scored 10-plus touchdowns. Three Crimson Hawks in total carried at least 72 times. 

Before his career as a head coach, Cignetti worked on the staff of an Alabama team that showcased the trio of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Eddie Lacy. 

An impressive list of standout rushers has played on teams with Cignetti. To that end, there’s something especially appropriate about the latest, Vanhorse, scoring his first career touchdown at West Virginia. 

It came right in the “Backyard” of another program where Cignetti coached, and in proximity of Vanhorse’s nearest comparison. 

“A name I’ll throw out most of you have never heard of, a guy named Dwayne Schulters at Pitt,” Cignetti offered up as a parallel to Vanhorse. 

Schulters rushed for 10 touchdowns in 1996, then put up 861 yards rushing with 208 receiving en route to All-Big East recognition in 1997. 

Cignetti praised Vanhorse’s diverse repertoire, in particular his “excellent hands.” 

The redshirt freshman offers a unique look, as does the entirety of the James Madison running back rotation. Two-hundred, twenty-eight-pound Palmer is a physical back who may have looked at home on some of those Alabama teams of Cignetti’s past. The UCF transfer Hamilton is explosive, evident in his contributions to the return game. The veteran Agyei-Obese contributed to each of the previous two, outstanding Dukes teams. 

James Madison rides that multifaceted approach into the meat of CAA competition, going on the road for a second straight time in Week 6. The Dukes opened conference play Week 5 with a 45-10 romp at Elon. 

Vanhorse did not play when James Madison lost at home to the Phoenix in 2018. His contributions in this year’s win — two touchdowns and 63 yards on just 11 carries — helped serve the receipt for a season ago. 

“It was more of a statement game,” he said. “We wanted to prove a point we’re still one of the top teams in this league, and we can play with anybody.”

The CAA schedule provides plenty of opportunities to prove that further. Stony Brook checks in at No. 24 in the FCS STATS poll. Week 7 opponent Villanova sits at No. 5 after back-to-back Top 25 wins against Colonial competition. 

With more marquee games on the horizon come more opportunities for Vanhorse to give the film room reason to cheer. 

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