Can you imagine being a 17-year-old in the high school calendar year of 2014-15, trying to map out the next half of a decade of your young life, with the recruiting machines telling you what you are and what you aren't? How could the FCS level possibly be a part of that picture, right? But now, in 2019 … you're one win away from playing in a national championship game on ABC. That was always part of the plan when the wicked forked road of college football materialized, right? Wasn't it?
He had it all planned out this way (cue rolling eyes). Welcome to the life of James Madison quarterback Ben DiNucci. Hell, welcome to the life of lots of 17-year-olds, and 22-year-olds (and 44-year-olds). Just ask all-world QB Joe Burrow after the Heisman Trophy ceremony Saturday night. Do you think Burrow predicted this end result? After we all shared a few wet eyes over his exchange with the father of McNeese's starting quarterback Cody Orgeron (I have a tough time mentioning FBS teams or people directly), do you think this "path" of craziness is easy for signal-callers? It's brutal. When it comes to picking a school as a QB … these days I think it almost requires a spiritual advisor to find a real home. It's not like baseball … where it's three strikes and you're out. Depending on the circumstances, it might be two strikes and you're out … but honestly, normally it's one strike and you're out. Or zero strikes and you're out. Welcome to reality, welcome to life.
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DiNucci was good enough to get beyond the "one strike" level when it came to playing in the ACC with Pittsburgh, a school so close to home that he honestly called it a "home game" because his entire fam-damily could attend. Late in the exhausting recruiting game, the 3-star prospect out of Gibsonia, Pa. had many college options thanks to an Uber-productive senior season, but the big fish of football recruiting came around late in the game. Before DiNucci committed to Pitt, he already had an FCS route planned: He had committed to the Ivy League's Penn … but after a stellar senior year he began hearing from a lot of other D-1 schools. He chose the Panthers, and he started there eventually. He has a ton of great memories from playing for the Panthers.
But ultimately it didn't work out.
"I was one of those late bloomers and I burst onto the scene late in high school," DiNucci told HERO Sports. "I started my sophomore year (in high school) at 6-foot-2, but only 165 pounds, soaking wet. I wasn't a whole lot bigger my junior year. But when my senior year came, things really clicked and I grew into my body. And our team was really good. We went 15-1 and lost in the state championship. The guys around me were really good, we had a great group of seniors like we do here at JMU and one thing led to another."
Welcome to college football, where dominos fall in a plethora of directions and impact a plethora of decisions. And headaches.
DiNucci's situation fits the narrative. He was originally recruited by Paul Chryst, who is now the head coach at Wisconsin. When this sort of thing happens, there's no happy ending for recruits — especially QB recruits who are encouraged to "be the team's class leader" for many months, only to learn at the last second that after they've burned all their recruiting bridges, a new coach is coming in with a new offensive scheme that doesn't fit the kid who has spent oh, 10-12 or more months of his life trying to recruit others to. You didn't do anything wrong, it's just that there's a new offense to try out that fits you like a square peg fits a glass of water. There are no guarantees this will end the way you want. It might, but it might not.
It wasn't a disaster for DiNucci though, he made the best of it.
"I think the thing that people don't realize is that quarterback is the position where only one guy plays (for four years, in a coaching staff's perfect scenario)," DiNucci said. "I wasn't one of those guys expecting to play right away. I was a smaller guy and I knew myself it might take a few years and (eventual NFL player) Nate Peterman was our QB. But I knew after my second year that there was going to be a time where I could go after the starting job."
Before DiNucci came to James Madison, he'd thrown passes in bowl games, he'd thrown passes at Yankee Stadium … he'd thrown passes weekly where the Pittsburgh Steelers played in that iconic place nestled betwixt three rivers. He'd been in the big venues. What he hadn't experienced was pure comfort. He's feeling it now, two steps from a chance at a natty. But the two toughest steps of his career lie ahead of him, and he knows it.
But even at the FCS level, it wasn't perfect from the beginning.
In 2018, he got his second shot at N.C. State in his JMU debut, the first coming of course as a Panther. The Dukes hardly cowered in a game against a strong ACC team. But there were some ups and downs during the season. Moving "down" wasn't really a "move down" DiNucci realized quickly. It was pretty tough.
"There were a few times last year where I'd force things and I'd try to make a play," DiNucci said. "That was probably the biggest thing that Coach (Curt) Cignetti and (offensive coordinator) Coach (Shane) Montgomery harped on. They came in here and they said you have guys who are going to make plays for you."
This year, that has been evident. DiNucci has learned that his offensive weapons and his defense can win games too. He is just a shade under 3,000 passing yards — the FCS nation's second-most efficient passer — coming into this weekend's national semifinal at home against a tough Weber State defense. He also has gained 650 yards rushing with 6 rushing touchdowns, to go along with his 25-to-5 touchdown to interception ratio. Last season, he was trying on the "glove" of the JMU offense and sometimes it didn't fit perfectly. This year, it has been custom made.
He has enjoyed the ride. In 2014, when he first picked a college, he never would have dreamed he'd be trying to get James Madison into a national championship game his senior year in college. But he wouldn't trade it for all the paper scholarship offers in the world, obviously.
"I tell people, this is the best football team top to bottom I've played with," DiNucci said. "It's been really fun to see how different last year ended and how this year has been really fun. The biggest thing FBS to FCS that I'd say is the difference is in the size of the guy, but the speed and the talent? It's here. It's great football, and we were right there with West Virginia (in 2019) and N.C State (in 2018)."
That's the funny thing … DiNucci has played in the big venues, both for and against Power Five opposition and then against P5 opponents as a JMU quarterback. Still, he says, he wouldn't trade being in purple and gold for any of the above. He didn't know he'd be here five years ago, but how many of us really knew where we would be five years ago?
There's nothing like making the right choice when that fork in the road presents itself.
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