Massaging The Scheme
Kirkpatrick Isn’t Reinventing The Dukes Offense — He’s Taking Ideas
HARRISONBURG — Donnie Kirkpatrick has always believed in collaboration.
“More minds are stronger than one mind, especially when it’s my mind,” the third-year James Madison offensive coordinator said with a laugh.
When Kirkpatrick was brought to JMU as part of coach Mike Houston’s initial staff, he was tasked with blending together his ideas and more from other offensive assistants to create the system Houston wanted.
Former Dukes quarterback Bryan Schor was the Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year and the team finished second in the FCS for scoring (46.7 points per game) and fifth for rushing in 2016 (275 yards per game) en route to the program’s second national championship.
But since then, the staff has had turnover and the offense, though still good, wasn’t as productive as the year before.
JMU averaged 34.4 points and 194.3 rushing yards per game in 2017.
“Year two, we had many teams tell us that they studied our offense,” Kirkpatrick said, “that their offense studied our offense and that their defense studied our offense.
“They did team reports and team projects on us, so I feel people were a lot more prepared to defend us with some of the things we did a little bit. So you always got to adjust.”
To do so, Kirkpatrick said he’s not reinventing the scheme, but he is leaning on his assistants to give him feedback, suggestions and anything that could help the Dukes move the ball as well as they did on their way to a national championship two seasons ago.
Wide receivers coach Drew Dudzik and running backs coach De’Rail Sims are the only two position coaches on offense that remain from that first staff.
Inside receivers coach Fontel Mines is in his second year with the program and offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler was hired this offseason after spending last year at N.C. State. He has 35 years of coaching experience at the Division I level, including time with Kirkpatrick at East Carolina.
“Obviously, the reason why you hire coaches with experience is that you want them to bring some input,” Kirkpatrick said. “You’d be crazy if you’re sitting in there with a bunch of coaches and you’re just telling them what to do.”
Kirkpatrick said Shankweiler has altered the way JMU teaches fundamentals to its offensive linemen.
“He brings a world of experience and some of it was with me,” Kirkpatrick said. “There are things we went back to, like he said ‘we used to do this,’ and some of it is things that he got.
“He’s worked with Ron Turner [at FIU], who’s an NFL guy,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s picked up some things that [Turner] did there.”
Earlier this week, junior center Mac Patrick said he noticed more emphasis on run-blocking fundamentals early in camp.
“Then Fontel Mines, who was in his first year with us last year, was probably just trying to learn what we were doing,” Kirkpatrick said. “But this year he’s been a little more like, ‘OK, I have an idea.’ So he’s brought more to the table.”
The collective offensive staff has discussed the best way to use the five running backs — seniors Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp and sophomores Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton — who probably each could start at other programs.
“What I know is that we have different ways to play different personnel groups,” Kirkpatrick said. “And you never have too many good players. Guys get hurt and we play lots of reps. We’ll find a way to get them all involved.”
Kirkpatrick said the staff will keep innovating throughout preseason camp to find which formations and sets of personnel work well.
The offensive coordinator’s first year with the Dukes was two years ago and his first away from ECU after 11 seasons with the Pirates. Then-tight ends coach Bryan Stinespring had just left Virginia Tech and then-offensive line coach Jamal Powell remained on staff at JMU after working for ex-coach Everett Withers.
Kirkpatrick incorporated some air-raid principles he had used at ECU, the option sets that Stinespring brought from Blacksburg, plays that Powell believed could keep some continuity for the players and introduced the run-game concepts Houston thought were critical.
“I felt like, year one, we had that advantage and we kept everything hush, hush,” Kirkpatrick said. “We made sure we didn’t let anything out, and the first year I think people struggled more against us because they weren’t sure.
“They went and watched East Carolina tape. They watched tape from JMU. They watched Citadel tape and they knew that was the wishbone and wondered if we were going to have some option elements. So I don’t think they were totally able to prepare until that week and then that’s not enough time.”