HARRISONBURG — James Madison’s offense decided to try for a two-point conversion with just over a minute left in the Dukes’ annual spring football game on Saturday afternoon.
With the defense leading 21-20, the hope was to score and run down the clock to let the offense win. It worked, thanks to Charlotte transfer tight end Taylor Thompson.
But the defense didn’t let the day end there.
The group put Arizona transfer quarterback Jordan McCloud in a fourth-and-20. When North Dakota State transfer wide receiver Phoenix Sproles was tackled short of the first-down marker, the defense got the stop, and won 24-22 in the modified scoring system.
It was the first time the Dukes have kept score during their spring game, and the first time all spring the team tackled, opting to use shoulder taps in the two closed scrimmages and during practices.
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So while the smack of pads echoed through a fairly empty Bridgeforth Stadium, a few transfers made a strong first impression. And with five months left until the season opener against Bucknell, the end of the spring season answered a few questions, though left unanswered is the question of who coach Curt Cignetti will pick to line up under center.
A four-way quarterback battle continues on, and McCloud, Alonza Barnett, Billy Atkins and Brett Griffis all had at least two drives Saturday. McCloud had the longest possession time of the four, going 9 for 12 and 145 yards, and showed his ability to move outside the pocket a few times. He was the only quarterback to take off, running for a first down.
Barnett was the first quarterback in and went 3 for 3 with some ease. Barnett had a few opportunities last season but is still one of the youngest quarterbacks available for Cignetti to choose from. The spring game won’t be a defining factor in Cignetti’s decisions, by any means, but it at least weighs a little more than a standard Tuesday or Thursday practice.
“It’s more than a practice, probably more than a scrimmage too because of the people in the stands,” Cignetti said. “But it’s really just another evaluation on top of the others.”
Cignetti has kept quiet about his thoughts on who the next starter will be throughout the spring, and in most cases the players are still figuring it out as well.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Reggie Brown said all four quarterbacks are different from one another, and he’s been trying to work with each of them to get them accustomed to the playbook. Barnett and Atkins are the only two with previous understanding of how JMU runs its offense, but they’re two of the youngest quarterbacks on the roster.
“My plan is to make them feel as comfortable as possible, I tell them all the time,” Brown said. “I feel like it’s a work in progress, we are still trying to build chemistry with each other.”
There will also be decisions to make at running back, though the group proved itself capable on Saturday.
Returning redshirt sophomore Kaelon Black and senior Latrele Palmer were already bolstering the room without Percy Agyei-Obese, but Stony Brook transfer Ty Son Lawton’s physicality shined in his debut with 43 yards on six carries.
“I wanted to see if I still have it,” Lawton said. “I didn’t want to come in, you know, just get spoon fed, and I like to be challenged.”
Palmer scored the opening 1-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and junior Sammy Malignaggi scored a 2-yard touchdown that led to a 2-point conversion in the second quarter. Though running back wasn’t necessarily a concern heading into the spring, Lawton’s presence helps ease the loss of Agyei-Obese for the time being.
“I love it,” Lawtons said of the running back competition, “It actually keeps me on my toes, keeps me focused, trying to get the job.”
The defensive line isn’t entirely whole just yet, with a few players out on Saturday, but senior Jalen Green had one a strong performance. Green was consistently in positions that forced all four quarterbacks out of the pocket and, in a true game, could’ve earned himself a few tackles for loss or sacks.
Green said he’s been focusing on becoming a more vocal leader throughout the spring, after having a strong end to the 2022 season with his first career interception against Coastal Carolina. He’ll eventually be joined by redshirt senior Isaac Ukwu, who didn’t participate in the scrimmage.
“I’m someone who kind of blossomed late into their career and, I kind of just want to show the guys that you could just keep your head down and stay down,” Green said. “To see the light at the end and you know, you can just develop and get better.”
The Dukes have a few players that won’t appear in the regular lineup despite playing well during the spring game, once the veterans are cleared for fall camp this August. But for a spring season with question marks, the spring game brought out some extra motivation to show off answers in a competitive environment.
Cignetti knows the challenges that await in the fall.
“Well, we’ve got to have a great summer,” the coach added. “I think we had a great winter with our strength and conditioning coach and now we have a great summer. I think our mindset is good. And you know, they know what lies ahead.”
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