JMU Athletic Communications
HARRISONBURG — Mike Houston has said before he admires the way Alabama and Clemson approach the game at the FBS level.
Both the Crimson Tide and Tigers do some of the same things James Madison does offensively — an emphasis on the running ball, even out of the shotgun. The same goes for defensively, with stress on the stopping the run and forcing turnovers.
So it makes sense the second-year Dukes coach is following the same recruiting blueprint those schools have used to help make them perennial national title contenders.
What separates the personnel at the top-tier FBS programs from the rest? Bigger, stronger and athletic offensive and defensive linemen on their rosters.
Two games into its season, FCS its opponents — FBS East Carolina and FCS East Tennessee State — on the line of scrimmage, using the depth of its offensive and defensive fronts to overpower the opposition.
JMU wants to have the deepest and best fronts in the FCS.
“We’re trying to [do what Alabama and Clemson does],” Houston said. “The goal is we’re trying to create quality depth across the board. And I think it’s the hardest at our level, and probably every level, on the fronts because everybody wants those players.
“Everyone wants [left tackle] Aaron Stinnie. … Everybody wants a [defensive end] Darrious Carter. Everybody wants a [defensive tackle] Simeyon Robinson, but those guys that have size and that are athletic and have intangibles are hard to find. So having the depth that we have right now, it’s taken some work and we’re working hard to make sure we have it next year.”
Stinnie and Robinson were already in the program when Houston arrived in January of 2016. But Carter and a few other key contributors who play in the trenches weren’t.
Carter transferred from Virginia before the 2016 season.
The Dukes also added former Rutgers defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter through the transfer market this offseason.
True freshman offensive lineman Liam Fornadel, who’s played significant snaps in a reserve role, was a three-star prospect by Rivals.com and had offers from nine FBS schools.
“It is a challenge, and I think we’re in a good place right now where we don’t have just starters, but we have guys coming off the bench that are quality players,” Houston said.
Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said he thinks the offensive line is improved because of the depth.
Last year, JMU usually stuck with its five starters throughout a game, but this year the team is using seven in a rotation.
“I think it really benefited us,” Kirkpatrick said. “Anytime you can play guys, keep guys fresh and keep creating competition among your team, it makes you better.”
After Saturday’s 52-10 win over East Tennessee State, Darrious Carter said that the defensive line was fresh throughout the contest.
The unit registered seven of the eight tackles for loss JMU had in the win.
“Usually, after six or seven plays, you feel a little fatigued. But today, as a defensive line, we felt really good,” Carter said. “Upfront, we were really fresh.
“Most of us went the entire game as a result of that. Even the nickel and base subbing in, we were able to play really hard throughout the game.”
Robinson said depth is also created in practice because he can tell during a game when an opposing offensive line gets tired while JMU’s defensive front is still going strong.
“I get that sense a lot,” Robinson said. “But we practice hard every week.”
Houston said by the end of the season JMU could eventually play more than the seven offensive linemen the team is using now.
Freshmen offensive linemen Jake Glavin and J.T. Timming are developing, and summer transfers Pika Leota (South Carolina) and EJ Donahue (Maryland) are still learning the playbook.
“It’s tougher to find them at the high-school level,” Houston said. “Everybody is after the same kid, so there’s only so many of them.
“And then the ones we do have that are transfers, they’re always going to be coveted by other programs, so there’s competition for those kids as well.
“We have a good core right now, and hopefully we can continue the trend of the last couple of recruiting cycles and find those guys because I think we have a good bunch of young players.”