Ben DiNucci's Turbulent Ascent Wasn't Easy, But It Was Worth It

HIGHLIGHTS: New Hampshire vs JMU

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Ben DiNucci’s current place quarterbacking a national championship contender wasn’t guaranteed – not as a middle schooler when he first took up the game, nor just a few years ago. 

“There were a lot of sleepless nights when I’d stay up and question, ‘Hey, do I even want to do this anymore? Do I just want graduate and get on with it?’” he said of his decision to leave the University of Pittsburgh. “I decided to stick it out.”

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Countless folks are undoubtedly happy he did, especially those in and around James Madison. 

DiNucci spent three seasons at Pitt, first as a redshirt in 2015; then appearing in a single game in 2016; and finally quarterbacking the Panthers in six starts during the 2017 campaign. He spent most of that season behind center, before freshman Kenny Pickett took over in the season finale against Miami. 

DiNucci declared his intention to leave in December 2017, less than two years from James Madison’s Senior Day matchup with Richmond – a game that, if the Dukes win, sews up an outright Colonial Athletic Association championship. 

When he made that decision, however, DiNucci did not know if his future would include football at all. 

“When I decided to transfer, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to play football anymore,” he said. “When I was there, the fun kind of got taken out of the game.”

Landing at James Madison and continuing his career proved to be the right call. With immediate eligibility, DiNucci won the starting quarterback job in 2018. He played well, too, throwing for 16 touchdowns with a better than 68 percent completion rating, and rushing for a team-high nine scores. 

 But how 2018 ended again tested DiNucci’s resilience – and set the stage for this season. 

“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to down the stretch. Part of that has to do with me, and I take great responsibility for not being able to play to my standards,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to let go of the past. That Colgate game last year was tough. I threw five interceptions; that’s never happened to me before. I didn’t know how to respond.”

Coming off the disappointment of falling just short of winning the CAA championship, and suffering an early exit from the FCS Playoffs, James Madison underwent changes at the foundation. 

Mike Houston left for East Carolina, bringing in a new staff. Curt Cignetti came aboard from Elon, fresh off two historic years with the Phoenix – the latter of which included their defeat of James Madison. 

That 27-24 setback in Bridgeforth Stadium contributed to the Dukes’ finishing behind Maine for the conference title. 

Competitions for starting jobs ensued in the offseason, as is customary when new staffs arrive at a program. DiNucci was named the starter in a competition with Cole Johnson that lasted into late August. 

DiNucci may not have known how to respond to last season’s disappointment going in, but he’s responded resoundingly since. His growth through his college football journey prepared him. 

“I’ve learned throughout my five years, I can’t let that stuff bother me. I don’t look at the stuff on Twitter,” he said.

Social media can be as much of a source of negativity as it is a great resource. A tweet that takes a fan five seconds to fire off can have a lasting impact, as TCU’s Jalen Reagor told us this summer.

Staying away from the negative has positioned DiNucci for positive things in his final college season. He’s rushed for 305 yards with three touchdowns, giving opposing defenses a dangerous wrinkle in conjunction with the multi-dimensional running-back rotation. 

He’s again completing more than 68 percent of his pass attempts with 17 touchdowns. DiNucci’s also hitting his peak individually at the right time, evidenced by his stellar outing Nov. 9 against New Hampshire: 19-of-24 passing for 293 yards, two touchdowns, and a rushing score. 

“Ben had great command. He was extremely accurate,” Cignetti said. “He’s matured quite a bit. He learned from his mistakes last season, maybe early in the season.” 

Cignetti called DiNucci’s consistent play at quarterback “critical.” And it’s fitting that position is setting the tone, given the theme Cignetti noted in his postgame press conference following the New Hampshire win: unfinished business. 

Of all of DiNucci’s stats, the one that might best tell the story of how he’s turned the page from last season is four. His four interceptions through 10 games total fewer than he threw in the postseason loss to Colgate. 

 Returning almost every starter from that team set the groundwork for this season. DiNucci said, “Any time you’ve got that many seniors [18] in a leadership role on a team, that can only be helpful.” 

That’s a group that includes such noteworthy names as Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka, the defensive line tandem with All-America team and NFL draft potential. 

“I’m just glad I’m in a red jersey when we practice,” he said with a laugh about having that defense on the other side of the ball. 

For the entirety of the JMU senior class, 2019 is about finishing business. And for DiNucci, he is happy to have not left his football career unfinished. 

“Football’s one of things I’ve loved since seventh grade. I couldn’t imagine hanging it up quite yet,” he said. “Being able to come to JMU these last few years, play in front of that home stadium every Saturday, has been awesome for me. Hopefully this Saturday’s not the last one at home."

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