HARRISONBURG — Running backs are catching passes at James Madison like never before.
“If you can throw the ball to the running back and free release the running back, you can stretch the field in the passing game,” Dukes coach Curt Cignetti said. “You’re putting more stress on the defense and, really from an offensive perspective, it’s all about putting stress on people in the pass game.”
Entering Saturday’s 4 p.m. non-conference finale at Chattanooga (1-2), JMU (2-1) running backs have hauled in four touchdown catches through the first three games of the season.
That’s tied for the most scoring grabs the Dukes have gotten from their running backs in any season over the last seven years and tied for the most in any season over the last decade. In 2016, JMU running backs combined for four touchdown catches and in 2012 they combined for five touchdown catches.
If Madison backs keep their current pace this fall, they’ll combine for 16 touchdown catches by the end of the regular season and obliterate the previous highs.
“It’s just like kick return for me, man,” JMU junior running back Jawon Hamilton said.
Hamilton snuck out of the backfield and turned a catch on a swing pass into a 50-yard score last week when he dashed through and past the Morgan State defense.
“Once I see all that grass with all that space to run, I just use my abilities,” he said. “Seeing that much space in front of me, that’s the thing I’m good at. I’m using my moves in space, so once I saw that much space, I just exploded.”
Cignetti said involving running backs in the passing game was part of his offense at Elon and that it’s an additional way to get the players that create the Dukes’ deepest position group involved.
JMU rushers Solomon Vanhorse, Austin Douglas and Eric Kirlew each have a touchdown catch this season, and regularly Vanhorse, Hamilton, Douglas and Percy Agyei-Obese share carries.
“Crap, I kept watching film yesterday, and I’m like, ‘How many running backs do they have?’” Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright said. “I just kept seeing a different number back there.”
Hamilton said Cignetti and JMU’s coaching staff make sure the running backs are given enough reps to improve their catching skill set in order to execute those plays in games. A Central Florida transfer, Hamilton added he’s comfortable doing it because of his time with the Knights when he had 17 receptions in 2016.
“I probably played a little slot receiver in high school at times, but I probably wasn’t that good at catching the ball yet,” Hamilton said. “But as I kept working and working, I got better and better, so when I went to UCF and with the type of offense I was in, you had to have to the ability to catch. So I kept it with me and kept working on it to get better, better and better and I brought it here with me to JMU.”
Hamilton said he spent time running extra routes and catching more passes this summer after he realized running backs would have a larger role in the passing game because of the offense Cignetti was installing.
“Definitely the jugs machine,” Hamilton said. “Or if I go back home, it’s calling one of my quarterbacks I previously played with to get some route work done or maybe I’ll go work on my receiver routes. But mainly I’m just working on my hands, hand-eye coordinator or I’ll use tennis balls. It’s just anything I can find to get my hand-eye coordination better. That’s what I do and it transfers right over to the actual field.”
The Coaches: For the third time in four weeks, Cignetti matches up with a fellow first-year coach.
Wright was hired at Chattanooga in the offseason after spending the last two years as an assistant at Georgia State, and this isn’t his first stint with the Mocs. Chattanooga is his alma mater and he was there previously as the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach for former ex-Mocs coach Russ Huesman during a run of three straight postseason appearances.
This is Wright’s first head-coaching gig, so he is 1-2. Earlier in his career, he was an assistant for current Dukes offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery when Montgomery was the coach at Miami (Ohio).
Cignetti is 2-1 as Dukes coach and is now 69-27 in his nine seasons as a head coach.
The Quarterbacks: Another reason for the increased involvement of running backs in James Madison’s passing game is quarterback Ben DiNucci’s willingness to throw them the ball.
DiNucci is third in the FCS with a 73 percent completion rate and all six of his touchdowns have gone to different pass catchers, including Hamilton, Vanhorse and Douglas.
Like DiNucci, who played previously at Pittsburgh, Chattanooga quarterback Nick Tiano began his career in a Power Five program. The Mississippi State transfer has thrown for 4,026 yards and 22 touchdowns in his 19 games with the Mocs.
Series History: These two sides have never met, but this contest marks the start of a home-and-home between JMU and Chattanooga. The Mocs are scheduled to visit Bridgeforth Stadium on Sept. 12, 2020.
And today, Madison will be the highest-ranked non-conference opponent to face Chattanooga at Finley Stadium. In past conference games, Chattanooga hosted No. 2 Georgia Southern in 2012 and No. 2 Appalachian State in 2006.
“I expect a lot of people to be there,” said Chattanooga wide receiver Bryce Nunnelly, a first-team All-Southern Conference selection in 2018. “And I hope us being 1-2 doesn’t deter people from coming, but I don’t think it will since the No. 2 team is coming in, so I hope there’s a large crowd and they make it fun.”
This isn’t Madison’s first trip to Finley Stadium, having won the 2004 I-AA national championship game at the venue.
Not Getting Enough Credit: Last Saturday, the Madison offensive line didn’t allow a sack for the first time this season and has paved the way for a rushing attack averaging 225.3 yards on the ground per game.
“The one thing that stood out to me on film is how violent they are,” Wright said. “I think they’re really good up front. I think that offensive line is much better than the one we just played that’s playing in the SEC and I don’t think it’s even close. I think they’re really good up front.”
Chattanooga fell to Tennessee 45-0 last week at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tough Task: JMU senior defensive end John Daka said he thinks Chattanooga’s offensive line could be tough to crack this week.
The Mocs haven’t allowed a sack all season and are one of only four FCS teams that have kept their quarterback clean.
And for the Dukes, though they have four sacks as a team, none have come from Daka or Ron’Dell Carter, who combined for 17.5 sacks last season. One explanation could be that JMU turns to a three-down front in occasional third-and-long situations in order to get more defensive backs on the field.
“Three-down wise it’s different from the extent of sometimes it’s six [offensive linemen] on three [defensive linemen],” Daka said. “So a lot of the time, you want to stress the edge more and try to make your moves as quick as possible, but we’ve got a lot of [defensive backs] out there that could play and are very capable, so you try to get as many people out there as you can to cover. So we just have to do our job to get out there and get to the quarterback, but it is a challenge and it’s one that we’re up to.”
Familiar Name In New Place: Former All-Colonial Athletic Association first-team running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks is Chattanooga’s No. 2 running back after transferring from Albany this offseason.
“He’s fit in well with these guys and we’re thankful to have him,” Wright said.
Ibitokun-Hanks’ time at Albany was derailed due to injuries, but he rushed for 85 yards last week against Tennessee.
Returning To Action: After missing the first three weeks due to suspension, JMU senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton will return today.
“He’s been out there every day of fall camp, been working hard and doing a good job,” Cignetti said. “I know he’s really excited to get back in the mix and we’ll throw him into the rotation. That’s another weapon and a guy that’s caught a lot of balls in his career. He’s a nice big target in the red area, so looking forward to it.”
Stapleton had 62 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Don’t Be Surprised If: Stapleton’s numbers are not extraordinary today.
Though, the 6-foot-5, 2018 All-CAA second-team selection, has been a go-to target throughout his career, DiNucci is distributing the ball to all the different running backs, receivers and tight ends at his disposal.
More Than Anything: Daka said the Dukes must finish non-league play strong and start the first of three straight road games the right way.
JMU plays CAA contests at Elon next week and at Stony Brook the week after.
“You want to go into CAA play as confident as possible,” Daka said. “We want to cut out the mistakes so that when conference play begins, we’re full throttle.”