JMU football began fall practice on Monday, its first under new coach Everett Withers, who replaces mickey matthews after a 15-year run that brought James Madison a national title in 2004 and a win over national power Virginia Tech in 2010.
The program seemed to be regressing toward the end of Matthews’ tenure, earning just one playoff trip in his last five years in Harrisonburg. But it wasn’t a lack of talent in the pipeline, Withers told the assembled media at a media day event at Bridgeforth Stadium.
The buzzword Monday, from Withers, his assistant coaches and players was culture, as in establishing a new culture in the JMU football program.
“When you’re installing a new program, a new coach, that’s what you’re trying to do,” Withers said in response to a question that I asked about the new JMU culture that he’s trying to instill. “How to practice, how to practice at our pace. Our pace is a lot faster and a lot more upbeat, and a lot more intense, than the previous pace was.
“We talk about competitive reps. People always talk about, you practice like you play, and then they don’t execute that,” Withers said. “We try to get competitive reps in practice. That means full-speed reps. We hit a lot last spring. We had a lot of contact last spring. Hopefully that will translate into us being able to go out here now in August and be a physical football team, stay healthy. Our spring objective was to teach our team what we wanted to do as a football family, and then now be able to enhance that in August.”
With NCAA rules limiting the amount of time that coaches can have with their teams on the field, Withers and his staff had time this summer to start to pick apart their rivals in the CAA. Withers, most recently an assistant at Ohio State, after a stint at North Carolina that included a full season as the interim head coach, knows from what he has seen that he will have his hands full.
“Very tough conference. I think a very well-coached conference with the teams involved,” Withers answered me on a question about the quality of play in the CAA.
“I look at coaches that have been here, been at places for 20-some-odd years, that says a lot about programs and stability and the way they do things,” Withers said. “We’ve got a very tough schedule, which I embrace that. More than anything else, I love playing tough schedules. But I think this conference is obviously one of the best in FCS football. It shows that with the number of teams that go to the playoffs each year. We’ve just got to find our way back in there somehow.”
The magic word there: playoffs. Matthews won a national title and beat Virginia Tech, but his inability to get to the postseason the past two seasons ultimately doomed him. Can the 2014 Dukes make a return to playoff football?
“I’m expecting good things out of this football team. What that means? That may not mean 10-1 or whatever. It may not mean that. It may mean growing every week, getting better as a football team every week. Because that’s the objective, is to get better every week,” Withers said.
Look for more from JMU football media day over the coming days from Augusta Free Press editor Chris Graham.