HARRISONBURG — The rest of the Colonial Athletic Association has its eye on James Madison.
With CAA media day two weeks away and the start of the season less than two months away, those who coached against the Dukes last season and will coach against them again this fall discussed their feelings about the defending FCS champions.
None of the coaches said they were surprised JMU went on to win the national championship.
JMU went unbeaten in league play to win the CAA outright. Its average margin of victory in eight 2016 CAA games was 23.8 points.
“I wasn’t surprised. I was impressed,” William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said.
Laycock is the longest tenured coach in all of FCS, having held his job since 1980.
“They maintained that level of play over a long period of time, and it’s hard to sustain that,” he said. “You get injuries and problems here and there, but if you sustain it over the course of the playoff run, and people forget how hard that is, it was impressive.”
First-year Villanova coach Mark Ferrante, who was the offensive line coach and an assistant for longtime Wildcats headman Andy Talley for the last 30 years, cited the strength of the CAA as a catalyst for the Dukes’ postseason success.
JMU won road games at Maine, New Hampshire, Richmond and Villanova last fall.
“I don’t think it was surprising because we all know, especially those of us that have been in the league for a while and have watched this league evolve, we know it’s a challenging league,” Ferrante said. “Whether, and obviously in this case it was JMU, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was Richmond that made a run or someone else in any given year.”
Maine coach Joe Harasymiak echoed Ferrante’s thoughts.
And Jim Fleming, whose Rhode Island team suffered an 84-7 loss in Harrisonburg, said JMU just kept getting better as the season went along.
“They were a very good football team when we played them," Fleming said. “And I thought we played terribly that day, but it had a lot to do with James Madison and they continued improvement throughout the year, so it wasn’t surprising to me.”
Though the larger body of work — winning the championship — wasn’t surprising to the group, some of the elements within the run were, according to the coaches.
“What did surprise me was that the amount of points they were able to lay on some people that were highly competitive on a national level,” Fleming said. “I think that’s a great tribute to the program, coaching staff and the kids.”
In the FCS national quarterfinal, JMU took down Sam Houston State 65-7. JMU outgained Sam Houston State 607 total yards to 270 total yards. The Bearkats committed three turnovers and were only 2-for-19 on third-down conversion attempts.
“It left a sour taste in my mouth walking out of Harrisonburg last year because I know we were better than what we showed in that last game,” New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said.
McDonnell’s team, the only team to play JMU twice in 2016, bowed out in the second round of the playoffs to the Dukes the week prior. It was a 55-22 win for JMU.
“But then watching [JMU] through the playoffs, and that dismantling of Sam Houston State, you realize just how good of a football team they really were,” McDonnell said.
Ferrante said he was surprised at how well JMU managed to overcome starting quarterback Bryan Schor’s injury in the Dukes’ CAA-clinching win at Villanova.
Schor was the CAA Offensive Player of the Year in 2016 and the group of opposing coaches didn’t hesitate to bring up the signal-caller.
“I think [Schor] is the best player in the league and it’s not even close,” Harasymiak said. “He’s an absolute freak and he makes plays left and right.”
Schor threw for 3,002 yards and 29 touchdowns and ran for 569 yards and 10 touchdowns last year.
McDonnell said Schor made the biggest strides between the time the Wildcats and Dukes met in the regular season and the postseason.
“They played downhill football and really improved and it had a lot to do with the quarterback position,” McDonnell said. “He had a tremendous game against us up here and he didn’t disappoint down there in the playoff game.
“Bryan Schor is the key to their offense and you look at this league, the teams that have great quarterback play are normally the teams that are winning in this league and the ones that have outstanding quarterback play go on in the playoffs.”
McDonnell said JMU also got great play from now-graduated linebacker Gage Steele that helped the defense get better from the middle of the season to the end of the season.
“I thought the Steele kid, from our game on, was one of the best defensive players in the league,” McDonnell said.
Harasymiak pointed out left tackle Aaron Stinnie, too. Stinnie was named a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports last month.
“Aaron Stinnie at tackle, I think the world of,” Harasymiak said.
With Schor, Stinnie and more players from the championship team returning than not, the expectation for JMU is to compete again for a CAA title and a national title.
Second-year coach Mike Houston’s staff is mostly the same with only two new assistants in place for this season.
When Houston took over last year, he was the third different coach at the school in four seasons.
“Once they got a structure in there, and got those talented athletes to buy in, it was a scary thing,” Harasymiak said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Houston and how he does it. And it’s great for the league.”
Fleming said JMU raised the bar for the CAA.
“James Madison is the one that everybody is chasing at this point, and rightfully so,” he said. “They’re the national champions and everyone in our league will be prepared to give them their best shot.”