Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Daniel Merriman
Bob Chesney’s James Madison squad has a completely overhauled roster heading into the 2024 football season.
Curt Cignetti and company departed for Indiana in late 2023. An active transfer portal cycle and graduation left the Dukes without 11 All-Conference performers plus several other key players.
This leaves immense amounts of opportunity for returners to break out into either starter or star players for JMU. Here are some candidates due for a major breakout when football season returns to full swing.
Offensively, I see the most potential for a breakout player in the wide receiver room. The 2023 catching corps featured two, 1,000-yard receivers who combined for 17 TDs. Both Elijah Sarratt (Indiana) and Reggie Brown (graduation) are gone from JMU’s roster.
The Dukes also lost senior slot receiver Phoenix Sproles, who amassed 442 yards and 5 TDs. This produces an opening for JMU’s returning pass catchers to shine in 2024.
The wide receiver I believe will break out next fall is Yamir Knight. The 5’8” and 182-pound speedster is a Swiss army knife of an offensive weapon. He played a hybrid wide receiver and running back role at Smyrna High School, where he was named the Delaware Gatorade Player of the Year during his senior season.
He caught 56 passes for 870 yards and 10 TDs, while also rushing for 787 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns that year. Thanks to his production, Knight received an offer from Bob Chesney’s staff at Holy Cross coming out of high school.
Nevertheless, he decided to join his older brother Wayne Knight on JMU’s roster, and he immediately made an impact. Listed as the backup slot receiver out of fall camp, Yamir made several nice plays throughout the season. He totaled eight catches for 73 yards while showing his explosive yards after the catch ability.
Offensive coordinator Dean Kennedy will have an absolute blast scheming Knight into open space. Look for Knight to be the Dukes’ starting slot receiver in 2024.
I have two breakout candidates on the defensive side of the ball who will be key to the success of the Dukes’ defensive front. The first player is Tyrique Tucker.
He’s one of two JMU brothers who make this list. His older brother Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey was an All-American linebacker for the Dukes and ended up finishing his collegiate career at Texas.
Tyrique Tucker rapidly improved this past offseason. He didn’t travel with the Dukes as a freshman in 2022, but became a key rotational player for most of the 2023 season on a dominant defensive line. Tucker is an outstanding interior defensive lineman, especially considering his age.
He was one of the youngest contributors to JMU’s historic 2023 defensive line. Tucker clogged the A and B gaps in the run game for the Dukes all year.
Tucker contributed 29 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks during the Dukes’ 11-2 campaign. During this time, he learned from one of the best DTs in the SBC, James Carpenter (who transferred to Indiana), and now appears to have a massive opportunity for increased production in 2024.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support.
Trent Hendrick, LB
The second potential breakout candidate from the Dukes’ defense comes from the linebacker room. Trent Hendrick became an integral piece of the JMU defense in several massive games last fall. When two All-SBC caliber linebackers, Taurus Jones and Jailin Walker, went down with injuries during the UVA game, young backups had to step up. They absolutely rose to the occasion.
Against the defending conference champions and the eventual back-to-back conference champs, Trent Hendrick and Aiden Fisher produced when their numbers were called. The defense (in large part due to the defensive line) put on an absolute clinic against Troy. They held the Trojans to 14 points. Troy proceeded to win 10 games in a row following that loss.
All this to say, Hendrick steps up in big-time moments, but has been buried in an elite depth chart for two years in a row. After posting 29 tackles during his true sophomore campaign, the three linebackers ahead of Hendrick on the depth chart left. Two starters went to Indiana, and in the case of Taurus Jones, he’s in the portal but didn’t announce a transfer destination.
It’s worth noting that Jacob Dobbs transferred in from Holy Cross and there will be fierce competition for the starting LB spots. However, Hendrick is due to see his experience and hard work pay off. At 6’0” and 228 lbs, Hendrick can likely put on lean size during the offseason, too. In 2024, he has an excellent chance to become a starter and accrue 50+ tackles.
Tons of unheralded JMU players showed flashes throughout the 2023 season. Considering the amount of roster turnover, there may be several returners who make leaps into more productive roles that I didn’t mention above.
Honorable mentions for this list include DE Amar Thomas, OL Carter Sweazie, DT Immanuel Bush, WR Taji Hudson, WR Max Moss, TE Taylor Thompson, and LS Jack Mowrey. D’Angelo Ponds was highly considered for this list, however earning All-SBC Second Team honors means a player already “broke out.” Ponds was easily the best true freshman who suited up for JMU last year. The freshman All-American is due for a monster season in 2024.
Share your thoughts in the comments! Let me know which players I underrated and who I left off the list completely who could have impactful futures for the Dukes.