JMU Athletic Communications
HARRISONBURG — Taylor Woods summed it up best.
“It’s like a brotherhood and that’s the biggest thing,” the James Madison senior running back said. “We help each other out and seeing our brother Trai [Sharp] going through that, it doesn’t just hurt him. It hurts us.”
Woods, Sharp and the rest of the players in the Dukes’ backfield are almost inseparable.
On game days, Woods and Sharp can be found on the field a few hours ahead of kickoff and even before JMU goes through its pregame routine, warming up early and tossing a ball back and forth.
Away from the field, Woods said all the running backs go out to eat together and hang out with each other on a daily basis.
This week the bond they share has never been more important.
Sharp’s father, David, passed away on Saturday in North Carolina, and the team’s senior starting running back Cardon Johnson suffered a season-ending injury during the second quarter of the Dukes’ 75-14 victory over Norfolk State.
“Certainly last weekend was extreme,” second-year JMU coach Mike Houston said. “Especially when you talk about a fifth-year senior that’s such a core part of your program having his season come to an end after he fought back from injury. That’s tough, and then you have another core member of your program have a loss like [Sharp] did.
“But what it showed me is the unity of this team and the way those kids rallied around those two guys.”
Houston said the players on his roster are tight.
And that was evident last year during JMU’s run toward a national title. The fifth-year seniors on this season’s team were recruited Mickey Matthews’ staff, played for Everett Withers and won a championship under Houston. Playing for that many coaches as the program transitioned over and over again forced the athletes to band together.
The closeness of the older players has trickled down to the newcomers and even some of the youngest on the squad.
Woods said him, Johnson and Sharp grew tighter over the last few seasons, and that transfer running back Marcus Marshall had no problem fitting in after he arrived from Georgia Tech.
Marshall, Sharp and Woods are all from North Carolina.
“We’re trying to focus on the game,” Woods said. “But it’s hard to focus with all that’s going on and Cardon being away.
“My freshman year when I got here, he took me under his wing and has been battling the Achilles injury ever since. It’s sad to see that his senior season is over.”
Johnson started the first three games this season at running back for JMU, and ran for 265 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Dukes to a 34-14 opening win over FBS East Carolina.
Though Sharp has been away from the team over the last few days, Houston said he will play Saturday against Maine giving JMU three veteran running backs to fill Johnson’s void.
Sharp rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown and also hauled in three catches for 45 receiving yards and a score against Norfolk State.
Johnson had surgery Tuesday, but is expected to return to Harrisonburg this week and be on the sideline for Saturday’s game against the Black Bears.
Houston said he’s tasked running backs coach De’Rail Sims with handling prepping Marshall, Woods and freshman Percy Agyei-Obese for Maine.
“De’Rail will have a good grasp on them,” Houston said. “My big concern is Trai and Cardon and that’s the two I’ll spend most of my time with this week.
“Also, Taylor and Marcus are older kids, they’ll take care of that room.”
Woods said he’s ready to do anything Houston, Sims or any of his teammates need him to do in order to win on Saturday.
“I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team and it’s wherever they want to put me whether it’s at slot, running back, it’s whatever I can do,” Woods said. “But Trai, he’s actually coming back [today]. He let us know, so we just got to stick our heads in the ground and keep moving forward.
“With the loss of Cardon, it’s more reps on us, and there can’t be any let off. That’s our main goal.”