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December 7, 2012

JMU Makes Staff Changes, Thorpe Also Not Returning

HARRISONBURG - Saying he thought his football team needed a fresh start, James Madison coach Mickey Matthews fired offensive coordinator Jeff Durden and offensive line coach Chris Malone on Friday after yet another season in which the Dukes' struggled to move the ball.

"Offensively, I felt like we need to start all over again," Matthews said.

JMU averaged 28.8 points and 391.5 yards per game - ranking sixth in both categories in the 11-team Colonial Athletic Association - but the offense often stagnated, especially in key games. With a playoff shot on the line, the Dukes sputtered against Villanova and Old Dominion in the final two games of the season.

"We were just in a rut offensively," said Matthews, who is in his 14th season at JMU. "I'm not getting into specifics, and we need to get out of [the rut]."

Since the Dukes reached the Division I-AA semifinals in 2008 with a dynamic offense, JMU's production has declined. That year, the Dukes averaged 38.1 points per game behind quarterback Rodney Landers, who received the Dudley Award as the state's best Division I player. In the four seasons since, JMU has averaged 22, 17.7, 22.2 and 28.8 points per game.

Part of that can be tied to the quarterback. The Dukes haven't had a consistent one since Landers.

This year, Justin Thorpe - a fifth-year junior who Matthews said will not return next season, despite a sixth year of eligibility - continued his up-and-down career, briefly losing his starting job to true freshman Michael Birdsong. Thorpe regained it when Birdsong got hurt, but Matthews said he would have played both quarterbacks if Birdsong had been healthy.

Apparently, there will be no QB battle in the offseason: Matthews said Birdsong will be the starter in 2013.

The 47-year-old Durden spent nine seasons as the offensive coordinator, installing a run-oriented spread that proved highly effective when Landers and Justin Rascati were playing quarterback.
With the offense bogging down in recent years, Durden - also the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach - was stripped of his play-calling duties in 2011. Those duties were returned this year, which started with big expectations for the Dukes. JMU, ranked fifth in The Sports Network's Division I-AA preseason poll, was thought to be a national-championship contender. Instead, the Dukes went 7-4 and missed the playoffs for the third time in four years. The offense was a significant reason why.

In an interview the week after the season ended, Matthews said "the biggest problem we had was we just weren't very good on offense this year. The second half of the Old Dominion game was, in capsule form, our entire season."

Matthews refused to get into specifics about why Durden and Malone, who was popular with players, were let go but said he was not asked by JMU's administration to make the changes.
"It was my decision," Matthew said. "I talked to - certainly been in conversations with the administration. They were very supportive of whatever I wanted to do."

Still, it was a tough decision for Matthews.

"These guys have been with me a long time," he said. "They've been very loyal. They're good people, and it's just never easy. It hasn't been a good day. They're good friends, and it's been extremely difficult."

JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne made it clear Friday that he wasn't satisfied with the Dukes' 2012 season.

"Our record this year, 7-4, and being excluded from postseason competition clearly is not our goal. We expect our football team to compete for the CAA football championship every year," he said. "Further, we expect our football program to reach and advance in the FCS Playoffs annually and be among the final teams in pursuit of a national championship."

Malone, a former offensive lineman at Virginia Tech, spent six years at Madison after replacing Curt Newsome, who left to become the offensive line coach at Tech. Malone also recruited Northern Virginia, where JMU gets many of its players. He also was named the run-game coordinator this year.

Neither Durden nor Malone could be reached for comment.

Matthews said there is no timetable to hire replacements.

"We're not in any hurry," Matthews said. "We're going to take our time, and we're not in a hurry. We've got plenty of time."

Matthews did say, however, he had coaches - he wouldn't name them - in mind for the open positions, specifically the offensive coordinator job.

"You always do," Matthews said. "I think, when you're an athletic director, you certainly have a short list of coaches that get your attention. And, when you're a coach, you certainly have a short list of coaches that [you're] familiar with."

But Matthews still plans to do some shopping.

"We're going to see what's out there. We're going to talk to several guys," Matthews said. "There are certainly some good candidates."

Whoever JMU hires, the offense is expected to be significantly different next season. Under Durden, the Dukes ran a system built around a running quarterback like Thorpe. Matthews said JMU will design the new offense around Birdsong.

Birdsong, while mobile enough to be effective, is more of a pocket passer, and an option offense isn't really suited to what he does best. Matthews said he wants the new offensive coordinator to bring a more pass-heavy offense to JMU.

"We're not going to run a lot. That's not [Birdsong's] skill set," Matthews said. "We did that with Justin, because he ran. … Certainly, the people we'll be talking to will be more towards throwing the ball."

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