After spending the offseason locked in a battle at quarterback, Pine-Richland product Ben DiNucci was named as the starter for James Madison, the second-ranked team in the FCS.
The redshirt senior threw for 2,275 and 16 touchdowns and ranked third nationally by completing 68.3% of his passes. He also rushed for 433 yards and nine touchdowns, a mark that led his team and ranked him second among Colonial Athletic Association players.
However, DiNucci’s five-interception performance in the Dukes’ FCS playoff loss to Colgate, combined with former coach Mike Houston’s departure for East Carolina and the arrival of first-year coach Curt Cignetti put the All-CAA third-team honoree back in familiar territory as he had to compete for the starting job.
“(Winning the starting job) was a huge confidence builder. Coming into this year, the coaches made it known that it was going to be open to competition. The way last year ended, it really didn’t hold up to my standards,” DiNucci said.
“The competition is never a bad thing. It brings out the best in me. Ultimately, I felt like it did because I played pretty well throughout the first two weeks of camp and I’m looking forward to carrying that into the season.”
DiNucci, who transferred to James Madison after three seasons at Pitt (including a redshirt year), is acclimating himself to his fifth offensive coordinator in five seasons. Cignetti is his third head coach in that time. But rather than allowing the constant coaching flux to leave him feeling on edge, DiNucci has chosen to play with an edge.
DiNucci’s all-out, gun-slinging style of play fetched mercurial results last season. There was the tough, season-ending loss to Colgate in which he threw five picks. He also was pulled after attempting just two passes in a loss against New Hampshire.
For the most part, though, DiNucci was successful. The Wexford native had six games in which he completed more than 70% of his attempts. He topped 60 rushing yards four times and ran for a score in six of his team’s 13 games. He also turned in a pair of five-touchdown performances.
DiNucci is aware of these polarizing results and said it’s something he and his coaches have kept in mind.
“I always see myself as a playmaker, but quarterback is a tricky position. You try not to be too conservative at times, but you also try not to win the game every play. So managing that fine line between the two is something coach Cignetti and my offensive coordinator, coach Montgomery, have harped on this year,” DiNucci said.
“There were a few games where I turned the ball over too many times. Something I’ve realized is I don’t have to put the team on my shoulders every week.”
Whereas DiNucci has seen his fair share of coaching turnover, he will be enjoying a substantial degree of continuity in teammates. James Madison returns nine projected starters on offense and its top three pass-catchers, including top receiver and Indiana High School product Riley Stapleton.
The Dukes quarterback might need all of his weapons when his team opens the season against West Virginia at 2 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown. And in characteristic fashion, DiNucci is eager to play spoiler for the debut of Mountaineers coach Neal Brown.
“We’ve had that game circled on our calendar since we got the schedule last season,” DiNucci said.
“So we’re going to come in guns a-blazing. We know they got a high-powered offense with that conference they play in, but our defense is ready to roll, so we’ll be ready to put up some points on offense. It should be a fun one, for sure.”