April 5, 2012

Veteran QB Plus Better WRs = Passing?

Considering the James Madison football team's offense last season - it averaged just 22.2 points per game, ranking 84th out of 120 Division I-AA teams - wide receiver Daniel Brown's prediction Wednesday sounded a bit brash.

"I think we could be pretty dominant on offense this year," Brown, a rising sophomore, said after practice at Bridgeforth Stadium. "I think everybody's going to be excited to see that, too - an explosive offense."

Brash or not, Brown might be on to something.

JMU returns all but two offensive starters, including quarterback Justin Thorpe, and possesses a deep group of wide receivers - all of whom have spent the spring refining their skills in hopes of reignited the Dukes' attack in 2012.

Historically, a team that runs about 70 percent of the time, Madison might even throw it more.

"We feel like we can," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. "If you look at it, passing the ball doesn't mean you're going to win, throwing the ball doesn't mean you're going to win. The good offensive teams I've always been associated with have always been 50-50."

By that definition, Madison wouldn't qualify. But it has had good teams with a running emphasis. In 2004, the year the Dukes won the national championship, they ran 70.5 percent of the time and threw 29.5.

But these wide receivers - wide-out coach Clayton Matthews called it his "best group, top to bottom" - might force JMU to the skies. Matthews said the big thing this spring has been picking the best of the big group. That includes finding a deep threat.

"There are so many guys who can play," the veteran assistant said. "You can't rotate eight, nine guys; only five or six of them are going to get to play each game. We've got to identify who that is, and probably the most important thing is developing a consistency."

Brown, a spindly 6-foot-5, 217-pounder, is a potential deep threat because he's so rangy. His height would give him a distinct advantage, and one JMU coach said "he's faster than he looks."

Andre Coble and DeAndre' Smith, both sophomores next season, are speedsters, and the Dukes have experience with rising senior Quintin Hunter (a Virginia transfer who missed last year with a torn Achilles) and rising junior Renard Robinson, who has missed time this spring with a concussion. Smith has been slowed by hamstring issues.

But the thing that might help the wide receivers most is Thorpe. The rising senior has looked sharp during the spring (especially throwing on the run). He gives JMU an experienced quarterback, and if everything works out, 2012 could be the first time since 2008 the Dukes haven't had to play more than one QB.

Clayton Matthews said Thorpe's presence has done the most to help the young wide receivers improve.

"As crazy as that sounds, you can only run routes so many ways," he said. "… Justin really, in our first five or six practices, he's really shown that the game is starting to slow down for him, and he's really making a [conscious] effort to stay in the pocket and go through his third and his fourth reads and make that throw."

Offensive coordinator Jeff Durden said JMU is even tweaking its system - a run-based spread - because of Thorpe's experience, giving him the freedom to throw on run calls if that's what the defense shows him.

"Most of the time, you have to actually call a pass," Durden said. "We have the ability to throw the ball off running-game calls. If we get the look and the box is stacked, then we have enough confidence in our quarterback to get the ball where it's supposed to be and that we're going to catch the ball."

Durden said the receivers are more aggressive than they were last year - "We actually had a fight. I can't remember the last time we had a DB and wide-out get in a fight, so we got a little moxie to us, and I like that" - and that he's looking to get them more involved.

"They're motivated because we're keeping them involved," Durden said. "There's a chance, on a lot of our running plays, they can get the ball if we get the look with the system we're putting in."

So maybe Brown isn't so far off.

"We have all our receivers coming back beside [Kerby Long]," Brown said. "I think Thorpe's improved from last season. He's throwing the ball great. His pocket presence is a lot better. … I think the passing game can be big for us. I'm excited about it."

And it could be even better in 2013. Durden said Wednesday that Thorpe has applied to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility because he missed all but one game of the 2010 season with a knee injury.

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