James Madison NC State Football

James Madison quarterback Ben DiNucci (6) won the job last year after transferring from Pitt, but he’s being challenged for the starting assignment.

Author’s note: This is the first story in a 12-part series looking ahead to each of West Virginia University’s 2019 football opponents.

When James Madison University visits West Virginia to open the 2019 college football season on Aug. 31, it will mark the start of the Neal Brown Era in Morgantown, but it will also be a new beginning of sorts for the Dukes.

Mike Houston left JMU this offseason to take over as the new head coach at East Carolina and was replaced by Elon’s Curt Cignetti.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Cignetti was a quarterback at West Virginia during his playing career, earning two letters between 1979 and 1982. He’s also the son of former WVU coach Frank Cignetti, who led the Mountaineers from 1976 through 1979.

The younger Cignetti, who prior to his stop at Elon had a very successful run in Division II as the head coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and was a member of Nick Saban’s first coaching staff at Alabama, inherits a JMU team that has been very successful in recent seasons but took a bit of a dip in 2018.

Last season, the Dukes finished 9-4 with a loss in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs at Colgate. That 23-20 setback ended JMU’s hopes of returning to the FCS national championship game for a third consecutive year and a possible second national title in three seasons.

JMU appears poised for another run at or near the top FCS football in 2019, with the Dukes ranked No. 1 in the HERO Sports FCS preseason poll and No. 2 in FCS according to Athlon Sports. Those lofty rankings are due in large part to the Dukes returning 20 of 22 starters — 10 on offense and 10 on defense — from their 2018 team. Let’s take a look at what to expect from the James Madison roster heading into the 2019 season:

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Like WVU, JMU comes into 2019 with a wide-open quarterback competition, but unlike the Mountaineers the Dukes have an incumbent trying to fend off challengers. Ben DiNucci, a Pitt transfer, won the JMU job last season and played well at times but also had his low points — like a five-interception performance in the Dukes’ FCS playoff loss at Colgate. Cole Johnson, DiNucci’s backup last season, and Gage Maloney, the 2016 South Carolina Mr. Football award winner, are also in the mix for the job. Johnson has been a three-year backup at JMU and appeared in four games for the Dukes last season.

“I try not to kind of rehash on what happened,” DiNucci told JMU student newspaper The Breeze during spring practice. “But, I think sometimes, those types of games can make you better. So the biggest thing for me is trying to figure out what happened to make stuff go wrong, and kind of just fix it and not let it happen again.”

Running back: This will be a question mark for JMU going into the season. The Dukes lost their top three rushers from 2018 to graduation, and DiNucci, a quarterback, is the team’s returning leader in rushing yards. Junior Percy Agyei-Obese could be in line to take over as the featured running back for JMU, having appeared in six games while running for 178 yards and one touchdown in 2018.

Receiver: Whoever ends up as the JMU quarterback, he will have a deep group of receivers to throw to in 2019. Four Dukes averaged more than 10 yards per catch last season, with three of those players — led by senior Riley Stapleton and redshirt sophomore Kyndel Dean — back for 2019.

Offensive line: This should be another strong point for JMU this season, with all five starters from 2018 returning.

DEFENSE

Defensive line: Another deep group, the JMU defensive line is among the best in FCS. Among the returning players for the Dukes is 6-foot-3 senior John Daka, a first-team HERO Sports FCS All-American pick.

Linebackers: This is where it starts to sound like a broken record, but the group of returning JMU linebacker should be strong in 2019. Landan Word, Dimitri Holloway and linebacker/defensive back Wayne Davis should from a solid nucleus for the Dukes at linebacker.

Defensive backs: As good as the line and linebackers should be for JMU, the secondary is likely the strongest position group on the JMU defense. Cornerbacks Rashad Robinson and Charles Tutt along with safeties D’Angelo Amos and Adam Smith form one of the best, if not the best, defensive secondaries in all of FCS.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Harry O’Kelly and Ethan Ratke handle the bulk of the kicking and punting duties for JMU, but the real star of the special teams is Amos, a redshirt junior, as the kick returner. Last season, Amos was a multiple-time first-team FCS All-American and was selected by Phil Steele as the FCS Special Teams Player of the Year.

Contact Tom Bragg at tom.bragg@wvgazettemail.com or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports. Read Tom’s WVU sports blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/wvu/