North Carolina's opponent in its 2007 season opener, James Madison, will bring an experienced and confident team to Chapel Hill on September 1st. The Dukes return 12 starters and a total of 48 lettermen from a team that finished 9-3 during the 2006 season, earning a berth in the NCAA playoffs.
The Dukes are widely considered one of the top teams in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS--formerly known as Division I-AA) heading into this coming season, earning a No. 6 preseason national ranking by College Sporting News, and earning recognition as the preseason favorite to win the Southern Division of the Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA) by a vote of the league's coaches and selected media.
Offensively, the Dukes will be led by a pair of seniors and preseason All-Colonial Athletic Conference selections, but will have to replace arguably the greatest quarterback in school history.
The Dukes have lost graduated senior quarterback Justin Rascati, who set James Madison school records for touchdown passes, passing percentage, passing efficiency rating, and completions over three seasons as the starting signal-caller.
Rascati, who signed a free agent contract with the Chicago Bears in late April, also set a school record for wins by a quarterback, having won 29 games in not missing a single contest over his three years at JMU.
The likeliest candidate to replace Rascati under center for the Dukes is junior Rodney Landers, who played in eight games a year ago, primarily in a mop-up role, and attempted just six passes, completing four for a total of 29 yards.
Although they have zero game experience, the Dukes have two redshirt freshmen, Drew Dudzik and Keith McPherson, that could potentially compete for the quarterback job in training camp and play against the Tar Heels.
JMU tailback Eugene Holloman rushed for 1,085 yards in just 10 games for the Dukes a year ago, solidifying his place in the JMU backfield. On his way to earning first-team All-CAA honors, Holloman recorded six 100-yard rushing games in the team's run-heavy offensive approach.
While Holloman had 122 receiving yards and a touchdown last season, he is rarely called upon to make catches out of the backfield, as he made just 11 receptions. He is much more of a traditional running back that hits holes and trudges out tough yards.
In addition to Holloman, who figures to be JMU's lead back this season, fellow senior tailback Antoinne Bolton may also get carries against UNC in the season opener. Last year, Bolton averaged 6.5 yards per carry in nine games.
When breaking down the numbers from the 2006 season, it becomes evident that James Madison looks to run the football first and foremost. Last season, the Dukes had 493 rushing attempts, compared to just 237 passes, a better than two-to-one ratio of rush to pass, so the Tar Heels can expect to see plenty of Holloman and Bolton under the lights at Kenan Stadium.
In addition to being a run-heavy team in 2006, the Dukes were efficient, losing only four fumbles the entire season. Forcing turnovers in the running game may be something of a challenge for the UNC defenders against this particular team.
Preseason All-CAA wide receiver L.C. Baker, an explosive player who also returns kicks and punts for the Dukes, caught 46 passes and eight touchdowns a year ago, while earning All-CAA first-team honors for his role on special teams. With a career punt return average of 11.4 yards, the Tar Heels will have to stick to their gaps and avoid a letdown within its punt coverage squad to keep Baker from breaking a big play against them.
Up front, the Dukes return starters at center (Scott Lemn), left guard (Vernon Eason), and tackle (Terrence Apted), and will be working new starters into the other two starting positions.
Apted, who transferred to JMU from Utah after the 2005 season, stepped in right away last year and earned the starting job at right tackle for the Dukes, which he held throughout the season. The 6-4, 335-pounder may very well move to left tackle this season, as the Dukes seek to replace a starter at that particular position.
Lemn, who has started 20 of JMU's last 21 games at center, was a big reason why the Dukes compiled season averages of 218.3 rushing yards, 391.2 total offensive yards and 32.4 points per game during the 2006 season.
Eason, who started in all but one game last fall for the Dukes as a redshirt freshman, was named second-team Virginia Division I all-state by the state's sports information directors.
The Dukes will have multiple players, including sophomore Dorian Brooks and redshirt freshmen Arthur Walker and Brandon Monroe, competing for the vacant right guard spot during training camp, while sophomore Chris Clarke and redshirt freshman Theo Sherman will likely be battling for the starting job at right tackle in camp.
The Dukes employ a versatile player at the tight end position in Marvin Brown, a tremendous blocker who can also line up at fullback. Brown played in all 12 contests for the Dukes last season, serving almost exclusively as a run blocker. Another Dukes tight end, sophomore Mike Caussin, will also very likely see the field against the Tar Heels. Between them, Brown and Caussin made just eight receptions for 94 yards, a clear indication that they are seen, within the parameters of the JMU offense, as blockers first, intended to clear the way for Holloman and the other Dukes tailbacks.
Considering the fact that they will be integrating a new quarterback in the season opener, along with the woes the Tar Heels had defending the run a year ago, it makes sense to believe that James Madison is going to come right at UNC with a smash-mouth running attack, almost daring them to step up and stop it.
A similar game last season against Furman nearly turned into a disaster for the Tar Heels, and although they managed to hang on by a thread against the Paladins, the 45-42 final score surely didn't help John Bunting's cause in what ultimately were his final weeks on the job as the UNC head coach.
Unfortunately for Bunting, the Tar Heels consistently were not ready to play in the season opener under his leadership, and while UNC figures to be the superior team in its first season opener under Butch Davis, they will be wise not to sleep on James Madison, a veteran club that does not anticipate getting shut down offensively against the North Carolina resistance.