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Are the Dukes ready for another playoff run?

You’re on the spot, Coach Matthews. Are your JMU Dukes a playoff team this year?
“That’s a good question. We’re pretty good. I think we’ll be – we think every team is going to be better than the team we had last year. I don’t know about playoffs,” Matthews began his answer to the reporter’s question at the team’s annual Media Day.

The question had been prefaced with, hey, c’mon, Coach, you’ve been around this enough lately to have a good gauge on if a team is a playoff team or not, so level with us here. Which is what happens at Media Day at James Madison when you’ve lost 15 games in the past five years, and everybody from the head coach to the staffers who take turns taking the Duke Dog for walks expects to be in the national-title picture.

For the record, the Dukes are almost certainly in the hunt for the 16-team I-AA playoffs in ’09, ranked eighth in the FCS Now preseason top 25, though that puts them third in the tough South Division of the rugged CAA, with defending national champion Richmond at #2 in the preseason rankings and Villanova at #3.

Both the Spiders and Wildcats return seniors at quarterback, which is why Matthews thinks they’re starting the season a cut above JMU. “The jury’s still out on our quarterback position,” said Matthews, who will replace Payton Award runnerup Rodney Landers with either redshirt junior Drew Dudzik or redshirt freshman Justin Thorpe.

Matthews repeated today what he’s been saying all preseason about his plans for the opener at Maryland on Sept. 12 – that both quarterbacks will see playing time, and that a quarterback rotation could continue on past the opener.

I asked Dudzik his thoughts on the idea. “Florida used to do it when they had Chris Leake and Tim Tebow. I don’t really think it matters,” Dudzik said, I think foreshadowing a future career as a political spinmeister, but he sounded sincere.

“You’ve just got to make the most of your opportunity. It’s not like the coaches are deciding who plays. We’re going to decide on the field,” Dudzik said.

The bigger issue is probably not quarterback but the defense, which struggled down the stretch in ’08, allowing just under 32 points per game in the playoffs.

“We just struggled to get off the field. Gave up a lot of yards against Towson (in the regular-season finale). We just struggled defensively the last half of the season,” said Matthews, who thinks his D will be improved in ’09.

Whether it will improve enough to account for what you’d have to expect will be a significant dropoff in production on offense from last year’s record-setting JMU unit remains to be seen.

“Does that translate into us being a playoff team? I don’t know that. I think there are just some really good teams out there,” Matthews said.


– Story by Chris Graham

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