(STATS) – Any team that has a quarterback competition in the spring usually finds it be the overwhelming storyline. It gets multiplied at a program like James Madison.
“Everybody’s going to be looking at the quarterback competition,” third-year coach Mike Houston said. “Right now, who knows? But the one thing you do know is if you have three quality players competing for the job, whoever wins the job is going to be a quality player.”
The Dukes are replacing Bryan Schor, who helped them to the best two-year stretch in program history – a 28-2 record with two perfect seasons in CAA Football, a 2016 FCS title and a national runner-up finish last season.
The three chief candidates to replace Schor are Cole Johnson, Gage Maloney and Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci.
Schor and his predecessor, Vad Lee, were dual threats, but this year’s starting quarterback doesn’t necessarily have to run the ball as much because the Dukes’ backfield is deep in tailbacks.
Johnson, who will be a junior, was the No. 2 quarterback last season. His redshirt was burned late in his freshman season in 2016 to make a start at Villanova when Schor was sidelined. As a sophomore, Johnson completed 14 of 24 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown with one interception.
“This is a guy that can make every throw. He has a very strong arm, a very quick release,” Houston said. “He’s 6-4, 6-5, he’s tall. He can see the field and he can make every throw. And he’s a very, very intelligent football player. He’s the guy with the most experience in our system.”
Maloney, who stands 6-2, 219 pounds, was redshirted last season. He was the 2016 South Carolina Mr. Football award winner.
“Gage Moloney has all the tools,” Houston said. “He’s a big kid with a big arm and he can run. He’s going to be a great player. He’s green as he can be – he’s a redshirt freshman, so he’s young, but he’s got all the tools. He’s a competitor. I think he’ll go after it with everything he’s got.”
DiNucci has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Last year, the 6-2, 220-pounder made six starts for Pitt, going 88 of 158 for 1,091 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games. He was the 2014 Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of Year as a high school senior.
“He chose to come here and walk on,” Houston said, “which I think’s about the only way you can come in here as a quarterback in this situation with Cole and Gage coming back and really earn the respect of the team. He’s come in here, he’s kept his mouth shut and he’s worked his tail off. It will be interesting to see how he competes, but certainly he’s been very impressive so far just from a conduct and work ethic standpoint.”
James Madison begins spring practices on Tuesday. Houston and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick are both anxious to get a closer look at the quarterbacks.