Sessions playing Call of Duty can get pretty heated among the James Madison offensive line.
Senior and All-Colonial Athletic Association center Mac Patrick said the more contentious showdowns in the pixelated world lead to the game getting turned off. Fortunately, that competitive attitude carries over onto the field for the Dukes front five.
“I always feel like if you’ve got a good offensive line, you’ve got a chance to have a good football team,” said James Madison coach Curt Cignetti. “In the spring, I felt we had a chance to have a good offensive line, and they’ve played that way throughout the season.”
The No. 2 overall seed in the FCS Playoffs, James Madison plowed to an 11-1 regular season with a multifaceted rushing attack. The offensive line paved the way to the nation’s No. 10 rushing offense, with a remarkable five ball-carriers posting between 310 and 901 yards, all of whom also scored at least four touchdowns on the ground.
James Madison’s front five set the tone for a 42.5-point per game offense, the second-most prolific in the nation. The Dukes had the third-most effective red-zone offense, and the second-most effective third-down offense.
Good offensive line, good team. Cignetti’s inclination proved correct. Meanwhile, the part that should worry James Madison’s FCS Playoffs opponents is that Patrick thinks the Dukes line has “not played our best game.”
“The one thing that sticks out is no matter how many rush yards we had or sacks we let up, we’re always trying to strive for better,” he said. “That’s really been the difference this year compared to previous years: We’re really hungry for more, and we’re not satisfied with anything.”
Not taking a loss in stride on the Playstation or on the field, this Dukes group is still looking for more. And it’s a group that has been through plenty together.
For the fourth-and-fifth-year linemen, their time together includes a run to the national championship. That’s a lineup that includes redshirt senior Jahee Jackson and Patrick, whose contributions in the semifinal win over North Dakota State as a freshman proved vital to James Madison’s title.
Patrick knows as well as anyone an exceptional first-year player can make a difference. But the importance of an established camaraderie and knowledge-base is difficult to replicate.
“It’s one thing for a freshman who’s really good to come in and play, who’s talented. But nothing really can substitute experience,” he said. “That goes for any position, not only the offensive line. When you play three years and experience certain things in games, you’re quicker to adjust, you’re quick to react.”
A veteran player has also had an opportunity to establish bonds, and that carries weight on the offensive line. Every position of the 11 on the field need to be in synch, sure, but a fraction-of-a-second being out of rhythm on the line results in a penalty or a blown-up play.
Forging that rhythm among five players doesn’t stop in practice or the locker room. The intensity of a Call of Duty round or a more laid-back environment at an o-linemen cookout have brought the Dukes front together.
“We’ve had two plus years to build that bond,” said junior guard Liam Fornadel. “That unity’s helped us throughout and made it a lot easier to play together.”
While James Madison’s line has played together for a few years now, a unique dynamic factored into the work of this unit in 2019. The players were familiar with one another, but the coaching staff was new.
Those spring practices to which Cignetti referred were in the early months of his introduction to the Dukes.
“They made it extremely easy for us,” Fornadel said. “They were great getting everyone on the same page and making sure everybody had an idea of what we wanted to do.”
“Half the battle right there is having coaches [who] have great character,” Patrick said. “We’re lucky to have coaches who are not only great coaches, but great people.”
A good line makes a good team; great people make a great team.