When James Madison quarterback Ben DiNucci is good, the Dukes are tough to beat. When he is not so good, however, opponents get opportunities to make JMU pay.
DiNucci, redshirt senior who came to James Madison after beginning his college football career at Pitt, was named the Dukes starter last week. It opens the door for him to reprise his role as the man who makes the JMU offense go.
In 2018, DiNucci led the Dukes to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs — a familiar place for JMU — but what happened when they got there was not something James Madison, the 2004 and 2016 FCS national champion, was used to seeing. DiNucci threw a mind-boggling five interceptions against Colgate in 23-20 second-round loss.
So which version of the JMU quarterback will show up for Saturday’s season-opening clash with West Virginia (2 p.m., AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh)? First-year WVU coach Neal Brown said after watching the film on DiNucci, he sees a player who knows how to win football games with his arm and his legs.
“He’s a winner,” Brown said. “He’s done a good job of running the offense they had last year. I know Coach [Curt] Cignetti brought a different system in, but he’s a really accurate passer. He’s got a strong arm, he can make all the throws and I think he’s a better than average runner. I think he’s what I call a ‘sneaky runner’ — I don’t know what his 40 time is, but he’s a really good, natural runner. You can tell he’s got great leadership skills coming in as a transfer and to win that locker room like he did.”
Last season, DiNucci completed 211 of 309 passing attempts (68.28 percent) with 16 touchdowns to go with 12 interceptions, including the five he threw in the playoff loss to Colgate. He also carried the ball 107 times for 403 yards and a team-high nine rushing touchdowns.
“He’s impressive,” Brown said. “He’s impressive and we’re not going to be too big for him. Obviously [he] started several games at Pitt, so he’s played in some atmospheres like he is going to see on Saturday afternoon. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said he also was impressed with what he saw of DiNucci during his preparations for this weekend’s game in Morgantown. One way to disrupt DiNucci’s flow, Koenning said, would be to get some pressure in his face. That, however, is no secret, according to Koenning.
“Real solid player,” Koenning said. “He’s a better runner than he is given credit for. His reads are really sound when he goes through his progressions. Like a lot of quarterbacks, if he gets some pressure it’s not as good but you could say that about Tom Brady I would think.
“This group [JMU] is used to winning. Back when Mickey Matthews [a defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Marshall in the early 1990s under Jim Donnan] was the head coach they were winning, and they’ve been winning ever since. So this is a program somewhat like us that has a tradition of winning. When you’re used to doing that, you know how to prepare, what to think. You know how to study film. You do all the things it takes to help you win, and I think [DiNucci] is very much a winner.”
Koenning said he is well aware of the Mountaineers’ youth in the secondary going into this season, and he expects teams — starting this week with James Madison — to test that.
“I’m sure they’ll try to attack a lot of places when they see all the [freshmen] on the roster,” Koenning said. “But that is what it is. We’ll see.”
One place, at least at the top of the depth chart, where WVU is not so young in the secondary is at free safety. Redshirt senior Josh Norwood, a recently converted cornerback, was named the starter there for the opener against JMU.
Norwood, who came to WVU via junior college after beginning his college career at Ohio State, started several games at corner for the Mountaineers in 2018. Backing him up will be former Capital High standout Kerry Martin, a true freshman who played some defense but was primarily known as a quarterback in high school.
Koenning said he has been pleased with the progress both have made in adjusting to life at the very back of the WVU defense, but added there is still much room for improvement from both Norwood and Martin.
“I think they’ve both progressed very good in camp,” Koenning said. “They both want to be good very, very badly. They’re probably doing as well as they can, but neither one of them are where they’re going to be by the end of the season — at least I hope not. We’re continuing every day just trying to get better, and what we’ve got to make sure as coaches we do is we take it one day at a time and get everything we can out of today.
“We’re trying to squeeze all the improvement we can out of [Norwood and Martin] every day and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”