James Madison fell short in the FCS Championship game in an instant-classic against North Dakota State, a defensive battle in every sense of the word. What will it take for the Dukes to get back to Frisco?
There's no question the senior class leaving JMU takes with it a ton of experienced playmakers. Among the seniors leaving are quarterback Bryan Schor, wide receivers Terrence Alls, John Miller and Ishmael Hyman, tight end Jonathan Kloosterman, and offensive lineman Aaron Stinnie.
On defense the Dukes lose defensive linemen Simeyon Robinson, Cornell Urquhart and Buck Buchanon award finalist Andrew Ankrah, linebackers Kyre Hawkins and Brandon Hereford, and defensive backs Raven Greene and Jordan Brown. And that's just some of the seniors who will leave this team.
That's a lot of production to move on from, but it's a problem every team at every level of college football has to deal with — the Dukes aren't alone.
So how does JMU look heading into 2018? Here's a look at the key returning players for James Madison.
- Quarterback: JMU will need a new signal caller after Bryan Schor's graduation. The all-time JMU career leader in passing yards, touchdowns, completions and total offense had a storied career for the Dukes. His backup this year, Cole Johnson, returns as a junior with limited experience and will fight for the starting job against 2016 South Carolina Mr. Football winner Gage Maloney and Pitt transfer Ben DiNucci.
- Running Back: One of the deepest groups returning to the Dukes, only Taylor Woods graduates from those who played significant snaps. Cardon Johnson is expected to receive a medical redshirt after his 2017 season was cut short by an injury, and Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharp and Percy Agyei-Obese return. Those four accounted for 2,284 of JMU's 3,267 rushing yards this season.
- Tight End: Clayton Cheatham returns as a sophomore in 2018 after an eight-catch, four-touchdown season this year.
- Wide Receiver: JMU loses several contributors, including leading receiver Terrence Alls, but brings back junior-to-be Riley Stapleton after his explosion in the playoffs. Stapleton caught 23 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns in four playoff games. JMU also brings back David Eldridge (42 catches, 533 yards, 4 TDs in 2017) and Ezrah Archie (16 catches, 121 yards, 1 TD in 2017).
- Offensive Line: The Dukes have a big hole to fill left behind by All-American tackle Aaron Stinnie, but nearly everyone else returns from their two-deep depth chart, including HERO Sports Sophomore All-American Jahee Jackson.
[credit]Darrious Carter is one of several returning starters from JMU's stellar 2017 defense. (Photo – Jim Oxley/HERO Sports)[/credit]
- Defensive Line: While the d-line loses a ton of talent in Andrew Ankrah, Simeyon Robinson, and Cornell Urquhart, experienced players will return — led by the Carter brothers. Darrious Carter was the team's eighth-leading tackler in 2017 and tied with Ankrah for most sacks (8.5) on the team, and Ron'Dell Carter had 8 tackles for loss and 4 sacks in 2017.
- Linebackers: The LB core takes a big hit with Brandon Hereford and Kyre Hawkins graduating, but Bryce Maginley, Mike Cobbs, Landan Word and Gus Little all return with experience.
- Cornerbacks: The Dukes are in good shape with starters Rashad Robinson and Jimmy Moreland back this year after combining for 15 interceptions this season. Backups Curtis Oliver, Taurus Carroll and Wesley McCormick also return, as well as Charles Tutt, who missed 2017 with an injury after a 15-game 2016 campaign.
- Safeties: Both starters — Jordan Brown and Raven Greene — graduate after stellar seasons, leaving JMU with D'Angelo Amos, MJ Hampton and Adam Smith on the two-deep roster.
- JMU brings back pretty much the entirety of its special teams unit, with two kickers who played this year returning — Tyler Gray and Ethan Ratke — along with punter Harry O'Kelly (a HERO Sports Freshman All-American), long snapper Daniel Caracciolo, and kick/punt returners Marcus Marshall and D'Angelo Amos.
This list doesn't include players who didn't break into the two-deep starting lineup by the end of the season, incoming recruits or transfer players. JMU had contributions from true freshmen and transfers all over the depth chart in 2017, and 2018 will likely be no different.
James Madison should be right back among the FCS elite in 2018.