While Neal Brown is working on building his foundations in his first season at West Virginia, so is JMU head coach Curt Cignetti — a graduate and former quarterback of both WVU and Morgantown High. The two head coaches will meet in what will be a debut for both of them with their new programs.
Contrary to Brown’s Mountaineers, Cignetti’s Dukes boast experience and a top ranking in FCS football. Their 2018 saw them go 8-3 in the regular season, but a second-round exit in the FCS Playoffs would end their championship hopes early.
Now ranked as the No. 2 team in the FCS nationally, the Dukes are hoping to keep the momentum rolling into 2019.
“Honestly, they expect to be better than last year,” said TJ Eck, who covers the Dukes for WHSV in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “As crazy as it sounds, JMU…had a pretty successful year last year, but this is considered a disappointment around here.”
Their offense will be run by quarterback Ben DiNucci, a Pitt transfer who has both talent and experience. As a junior last season, DiNucci generated the fourth-most offense out of any player in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Neal Brown had high praise for the signal caller in the days before the contest.
“I like him a lot on film,” Brown said. “He doesn’t get rattled, I think he’s a better athlete than probably what people give him credit for sometimes. He’s accurate.”
He will have several weapons to throw to, mainly wide receiver Kyndel Dean and tight end Riley Stapleton, who both led the team in receiving last year.
When speaking about Dean, Brown offered a comparison of one of his own receivers to describe his style of play.
“I think he’s talented,” Brown said. “He reminds me a lot of Sean Ryan, which I think is good for our guys….He made a bunch of big plays for them last year.”
The Dukes were at top-five team in the country defensively, and many of the pieces that put them there will be on the field on Saturday. There are several NFL prospects on this defense — a rare occurrence in FCS — including defensive linemen Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka. The latter amassed 10 sacks last year, and earned a HERO Sports First Team Preseason All-American bid heading into 2019.
“He’s got a lot of speed off the edge,” Brown said of Daka. “He can cause some problems.”
Their defense will also feature Rashad Robinson, who is not just one of the top cornerbacks in FCS, but one of the top players — period. After having missed all of last season with an ACL injury, he is also coming into this season as a preseason All-American with a good spot on NFL draft boards.
Despite the Mountaineers’ perfect record against FCS opponents, Brown has been careful to not underestimate his first opponent in Morgantown. Having coached at that level himself, he says he’s familiar with the mentality of an underdog like JMU.
“I’ve been at the FCS level, I’ve been at the Group of 5 level the last four years,” he said. “So, I understand what their mentality is in that locker room right now as far as coming in to what is going to be a tremendous atmosphere in a Big 12 stadium — because their players, and rightfully so in a lot of instances, believe that they should be playing in these Power 5 conferences.”
Ultimately, Eck says that this JMU squad may give the Mountaineers a run for their money, and fans shouldn’t put them off because of their FCS affiliation.
“Yeah, it’s an FCS school by name, but when this team goes out on the field Saturday, I think a lot of fans will see that this is not your typical pushover FCS school,” Eck said. “This is a team that’s good enough to compete and good enough to win if everything goes right.”