The James Madison football team will be virtually unrecognizable from the one that went 2-16 the last two seasons.
The players are new, the system on both sides of the ball has been altered, and even the coaching staff is somewhat different.
“[Hopefully], it will get the program in the right direction,” coach Tom Mobilia said. “We’re starting from scratch.”
Madison’s previous strength — size on both lines — is now a weakness. But the Knights have speed — young speed in fact — to burn on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Kevin Francis is one of the few returners, but he will operate a spread offense instead of the Delaware Winged-T, a decision Mobilia made to take advantage of his skill position players and inexperienced offensive line.
Francis’ greatest asset last fall was his running ability — he amassed 565 yards and four touchdowns on the ground – but he has diligently worked on his throwing during the offseason. And Mobilia has already seen a difference under new quarterbacks coach Michael Friscia, a Madison alum.
Sophomore Adeyinka Anifowoshe, a speedy 6-foot track and field standout, is expected to start at running back while sophomore wide receivers Stephen Friscia and Christian Procida and tight end Thomas Brovakos will be Francis’ main target. Friscia has opened eyes thus far as an undersized slot receiver with reliable hands.
Of course, Francis will need time to find these receivers and Anifowoshe can only use his speed to the outside if there is room to run, and that’s where the young offensive lines comes in. Erick Tinsley and Kiron Mitchell, a pair of 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore offensive tackles, are being asked to emerge.
“It always starts with the offensive line,” Mobilia said. “If we’re blocking up front, that will be the key. Last year, a huge part of my team was my offensive line. Even though we’re young this year, I think they are a little more talented than last year.”
As is the case on offense, the defense is learning a new system — a 4-4 formation, which relies heavily on linebacker play — under new defensive coordinator Ubeaka McKinney, who previously ran the JV program at Sheepshead Bay and coached at Boys & Girls last year. Good thing, since Mobilia says that’s the unit’s strength. While Mike Lebano, Jason Meyer, Olek Chorny and Brovakos are all around 5-foot-10, 175, the quartet is fast, smart and swarm to the ball.
“We’re gonna have to use our quickness to make the plays, and probably gang tackle,” Mobilia said.
All told, Mobilia and his staff are counting on plenty of sophomores up from the JV, which went 4-4 a season ago. The Knights graduated 26 seniors. Mobilia knows there will be a learning curve. But he hopes his players will adjust eventually.
He compared his team to the plight of Erasmus Hall a few years ago, when the Dutchmen went 2-7 and 4-5 in back-to-back seasons with underclassmen.
“Now they built a really good program,” Mobilia said. “The positive is the sophomores get the experience, they get stronger, they get faster. Hopefully, the next two years, we can build a team around these sophomores.”