Wayne Epps Jr. and Drew Crane, the sports editors for the James Madison University student newspaper The Breeze,were kind enough to answer some questions about Maryland's first opponent before the teams meet on Saturday. A transcript of our email exchange follows:
TT Speaking for most Maryland types, I haven't seen much James Madison football. What can you tell us about the Dukes' new head coach, Everett Withers, and the direction you expect him to take the program in?
WE: Withers comes from some big time programs and big-time positions. He's coached in the NFL and most recently was the Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator at Ohio State for the past two seasons under head coach Urban Meyer. But the key word for Withers' program at JMU is energy, or as he calls it "juice". At the beginning of his tenure, he emphasized that he wanted to hire a staff with that energy and juice, and it appears as if he's done that. He has a young staff overall and they help to create a practice atmosphere with a lot of intensity.
Schematically, JMU should follow that same tune. They'll look to run an up-tempo spread offense and an aggressive 3-4 defense. But returning players have mentioned that the new coaching staff is pushing them harder than they've been pushed, so the change Withers is bringing may be what they needed or were looking for.
TT: What can Maryland expect to see systematically from the Dukes, both on offense and defense?
DC: With the arrival of Withers, the Dukes have seen much more of a change on the defensive side of the ball as opposed to the offense. Under former coach Mickey Matthews, JMU would run the ball a lot, and now that Withers has his man in Georgia Tech transfer Vad Lee, the Dukes are going to run the ball, a lot, again. They also have a stable of solid running backs, with the headliners being sophomore Khalid Abdullah, and redshirt freshman Alden Hill, a transfer from the University of Tennessee. On defense, JMU has switched from a 4-3 to a pro-style 3-4 that has traces of Saban's defense at Alabama and Vic Fangio's with the San Francisco 49ers. The biggest change with this is that defensive ends Ascene Jacques and Sage Harold have had to convert from 4-3 d-ends to 3-4 outside linebackers. They now also have two middle linebackers.
TT: Two Maryland transfers from near the start of Randy Edsall's tenure -- safety-turned-linebacker Titus Till and cornerback Jeremiah Wilson -- will be on the JMU sideline on Saturday. What are your expectations for both this year?
WE: Both will be important pieces on JMU's defense. Wilson is starting at cornerback, as he comes down from playing safety himself. Till is slated to backup Rhakeem Stallings at middle linebacker. We've also seen him in on the nickel package in practice. Wilson started the first seven games at safety for JMU last season, but an injury kept him out the rest. Till started all games for JMU last season. Agan, JMU wants to be aggressive on defense. So with their experience, the two appear to be good fits for their new spots: they know how to cover and can come down and stop the run.
TT: Do you have any impressions of Maryland from afar, especially as it relates to breaking down Saturday's matchup?
DC: Being a Maryland native myself, I'm pretty familiar with the Terps football program. In fact, Edsall is one of the most famous alumni from my high school. Although I don't watch the team that often, I know that Edsall hasn't quite lived up to the high expectations set for him after coming from UConn. Granted, ya'll haven't had a true starting quarterback for a while, so that hasn't helped. But, you do have a very good program there - as well as some very flashy jerseys - and you guys usually get solid recruiting classes. Either way, I suggest you all don't sleep on JMU. Not only has Withers really changed the culture, but he's also brought that D-1, Ohio State mentality to Harrisonburg.
TT: Maryland's offense looks strong at the skill positions this year, especially wide receiver. Do the Dukes have the pass-rushers and secondary to make life hard on wideouts Stefon Diggs and Deon Long?
DC: As I mentioned before, the Dukes have switched to that 3-4 defense, moving last season's defensive ends to outside linebacker. They might struggle in coverage a little bit, but I don't see them having too many issues rushing the passer from their new spots. The defensive line is stout, with big-bodied Xavier Gates (a Kansas State transfer) acting as the space-eater, and Alex Mosley (6-foot-1, 290 lbs) and Evans Osuji (6-foot-3, 270 lbs) as the d-ends. They should generate a solid pass rush, as well as stuff the run up the middle. That's a lot easier said than done though with the likes of CJ Brown and Brandon Ross in your backfield.
Last season, the Dukes' biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball was their pass coverage, particularly at the corner position. With Wilson and redshirt sophomore Taylor Reynolds, the Dukes are actually bringing a relatively tall corner tandem to deal with your group of talented receivers. In his teleconference, Withers acknowledged that ya'll have a great receiver corps, but I think the pass rush will make things easier for our corners.
TT: The Terrapins figure to be a heavy favorite at Byrd Stadium. If the Dukes are to pull off an upset, how will they do it?
WE: I think a JMU upset depends on how well the front seven plays. If the guys up front can consistently put pressure on Brown at quarterback and limit the running room he and Ross have, they will be in business. Then on offense, I believe Lee will make some plays with both his legs and his arms. JMU has some talented receivers, including the 6-foot-5 Daniel Brown. So if the guys on defense are getting it done and putting the ball back in Lee's hands, JMU could surprise some people.
TT: Lastly, your prediction for the game?
DC: JMU 24, UMD 17.
WE: JMU 31, UMD 28.