Bennett Conlin the James Madison beat writer for @JMUSportsNews was kind enough to collaborate with me on a set of 5 questions about Utah State’s fourth opponent of the 2023 season. The Aggies face the James Madison Dukes at home for the third of four non-conference games on the schedule for Utah State. Huge shout out to Bennett for joining me this week!!

James Madison is one of just two programs (Central Florida) to have played at all four levels the NCAA offers. Most recently the Dukes made the jump from the FCS to the FBS level just one season ago when the program joined the Sun Belt Conference for the 2022 season. Describe the Dukes journey up the NCAA football hierarchy and the direction you see the program moving.

It’s a relatively young program, with the team’s first football season taking place in 1972. The Dukes have slowly climbed the ranks, moving to what’s now called the FCS in the late 1970s. The program grew nicely under Mickey Matthews, winning a national title in 2004. After Matthews, a series of coaches helped take the program to the “next level.”

Curt Cignetti is the current head coach, and he ushered the Dukes to the FBS level last season. JMU went 8-3 in the first year of its two-year NCAA transition period, and the Dukes look the part of a quality Sun Belt team again in 2023. The program is in a great spot, and fans are hopeful JMU will be one of the best Group of Five teams for years to come.

Senior quarterback Jordan McCloud began his career at South Florida where he had 17 starts in 20 games, he then transferred to the University of Arizona and only saw action in three games in 2 years. He is currently an efficient 45 completions in 68 attempts for 568 yards and 4 scores. Do you feel like he has shaken off the rust from not playing much for two years and how has the team responded to him becoming the leader of the offense?

JMU began the season with redshirt freshman quarterback Alonza Barnett as the starter, but the youngster struggled in Week 1 against Bucknell. Barnett was benched for McCloud, who has done well as the team’s new QB1. The team seems to respond well to McCloud, although the offense is still waiting for a complete, 60-minute performance.

I think the rust is likely gone for McCloud by this point, but the Dukes haven’t asked the quarterback to do a ton through two starts. I’m interested to see when (or if) JMU tries to lean more heavily on McCloud, as he’s an efficient passer and shifty runner. He’s a dynamic player in space, but there haven’t been many designed runs for the transfer in recent games.

Sophomore Kaelon Blake (37 carries 228 yards) and senior TySon Lawton (26 carries 156 yards 3 touchdowns) have been a great one-two punch at running back this season. What makes each back so successful and how does the running game fit into the overall offensive scheme?

JMU loves to run the football. Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage is JMU’s identity as a program, and that starts with running the ball and stopping the run. Both Black and Lawton possess good speed, but they’re also plenty willing to lower their shoulders to run through contact. I really like Black as a receiver, and the Dukes seem to be gaining trust in him catching multiple passes per game.

Latrele Palmer is the most physical back on the roster, and he’s solid in pass protection. JMU loves its running back room, and I’d expect the Dukes to feature all three runners against the Aggies.

The defensive front has been extremely effective so far this season. The combination of senior Jalen Green (15 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks), senior Jamree Kromah (15 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks), junior James Carpenter (10 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 2.5 sacks), and sophomore Mikail Kamara (15 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks), has given opposing offenses fits. Talk about what each player brings to the table and how the defensive scheme is able to produce so many players with multiple tackles-for-loss and sacks.

JMU’s focus is winning the line of scrimmage and stopping the run, so the Dukes often crowd the line of scrimmage with linebackers and safeties. Part of the reason JMU is so successful at stopping the run is the starting defensive line creates havoc up front, allowing linebackers and safeties to quickly reach the opponents’ backfield.

Carpenter anchors the middle, and the former walk-on might be JMU’s best overall player. He’s not 300+ lbs, but he plays bigger than his listed weight and presents a lot of problems upfront. His motor is impressive for a nose tackle.

Green is a speedy edge rusher who thrives in pass-rushing situations. Kromah, a Rutgers transfer, has good size, strength, and speed. He’s taken a huge leap this season and looks like an All-Sun Belt player.

Kamara might be the most talented defensive lineman on the roster, given his athleticism and size. JMU lost Isaac Ukwu as a transfer to Ole Miss over the offseason, and Kamara could easily transfer to a Power Five team in the offseason if he’s so inclined.

The Dukes currently sit at 3 and 0 with the last two wins coming in thrilling fashion. The offense led a come-from-behind 36-35 victory over the University of Virginia and the defense stifled Troy University for a 16-14 win. With each side of the ball being instrumental in two of the three victories, how do you feel that prepares the Dukes for a tough road game this week against the Aggies and the rest of the season going forward?

JMU showed resilience in both victories, battling against two solid opponents and narrowly securing wins. Finding ways to win when you don’t play your best will be a valuable lesson for the rest of the season.

Still, JMU needs to play better. I’d expect the Dukes to show up motivated this weekend, as they’ve yet to play up to their potential for a full four quarters. The offense, in particular, should have something to prove against the Aggies.

JMU’s secondary has been a weakness over the last couple of seasons. Can that unit step up against a young quarterback? The answer to that question likely determines Saturday’s winner.