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Elon Looks Familiar

Cignetti Building Phoenix Like Houston Built Dukes

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James Madison wide receiver John Miller makes a catch during the Dukes' win over Elon last season at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg.
Austin Bachand | DN-R

HARRISONBURG — The turnaround is remarkably familiar.

The two coaches sound undeniably similar.

“We wanted to be a very physical football team with high standards and expectations with the thought being one day at a time,” first-year Elon coach Curt Cignetti said Monday during the Colonial Athletic Association coaches teleconference. “Focusing on the present moment to prove as much as you can daily to get yourself the best chance to get the result and improve the most.

“That’s kind of how we play, sort of one play at a time. Nothing too high, nothing too low. Just onto the next play.”

James Madison coach Mike Houston has expressed the same sentiments time and time again to his players since arriving in Harrisonburg before the 2016 season.

“They’ve bought into the whole mentality of that when you talk about each week, no matter who it is, that it is the biggest game of the year,” Houston said. “Because it’s the only game we play that week.”

Houston helped JMU go from playoff contender to national champion after ex-Dukes coach Everett Withers left for the head job at Texas State. JMU has won 22 straight games and are 24-1 overall under Houston.

Cignetti has elevated Elon from CAA doormat to competitor for a conference title after ex-Phoenix coach Rich Skrosky departed for the offensive coordinator gig at Florida International.

JMU travels to Elon on Saturday with the CAA title on the line.

A win for JMU would give the Dukes an outright league championship for the second straight season. A win for Elon would give the Phoenix a share of the CAA title.

“I’m sure the blueprint is probably similar,” Cignetti said. “It’s probably laid out a little differently, but I see some parallels.

“They’re a little further along in their program in terms of their recruiting and development than we are. We’re sort of in the infancy stage.”

Cignetti, like Houston, has mentors at the highest level of college football, but also became a head coach for the first time at a Division II school.

Houston took Lenoir-Rhyne to the Division II postseason twice before moving onto The Citadel and eventually JMU. Cignetti took Indiana University of Pennsylvania to the Division II playoffs three times before taking the job at Elon.

Before becoming a head coach, Cignetti worked for Nick Saban as an assistant and recruiting coordinator at Alabama. Cignetti’s dad, Frank Cignetti Sr., is a College Football Hall of Fame coach with stints at IUP and West Virginia.

Houston worked for Fred Goldsmith — the former Rice and Duke coach — at Lenoir-Rhyne before becoming the head coach at the school.

“I think they’ve done a great job,” Houston said of Cignetti and the staff at Elon. “They are so much better on the offensive line than they were a year ago and that’s a lot of the same guys, so that says a lot right there. They’re playing very physical in the run game. They’re doing a good job in pass protection.

“They’ve got some receivers really making some plays and, defensively, they’re just doing a really good job of being sound with the front-stacked defense.”

Cignetti said JMU plays how he wants his team to play on a weekly basis.

“I have a great coaching staff and we wanted to change the culture and the mindset and we wanted to change the way that our players think,” Cignetti said. “We thought we had to get a lot tougher, mentally and physically. We wanted to be fast, physical and relentless.

“[JMU] is definitely fast, physical and relentless. They got a lot of really, really good players and a dominant defense — the kind of defense anyone would love to have — and they do a good job offensively, too.”

Last year, JMU beat Elon 63-14 in the final week of the regular season.

JMU defensive coordinator Bob Trott said he can see the improvements Elon has made.

“Obviously, the players have bought into their system and we know a little bit about that because it happened at our place last year,” Trott said. “They’re playing good sound offense and defense and special teams. You got to tip your hat off to them.”

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