James Madison is the center of the college football universe for a few hours this Saturday as host campus for ESPN College Gameday. Dukes head coach Everett Withers said JMU is “going to get all the exposure [it] can get as far as college football’s concerned.”
Quarterback Vad Lee’s play for the undefeated and fourth-ranked Dukes deserves a large portion of the exposure Gameday‘s visit afford James Madison. Lee’s been spectacular in each of his two seasons since arriving in Harrisonburg, Virginia, passing for 49 touchdowns and rushing for another 14 in that time.
The Dukes are winners of 16 games in Lee’s time as quarterback, appeared in last year’s Playoffs and are in pursuit of a top overall seed in this season’s tournament.
Vad Lee is indeed one of the nation’s best-kept secrets.
If the name sounds familiar to those not abreast of the Football Championship Subdivision, it’s because Lee was a tarter at Georgia Tech. A high 3-star recruit out of Durham, North Carolina, he had two up-and-down seasons at Georgia Tech before opting to transfer.
His exposure as part of Gameday coming to JMU includes this ESPN.com feature by Matt Walks, in which Lee says, “things just didn’t work out like I thought [they] would [at Georgia Tech].”
Part of the odd fit, per ESPN.com, was Lee’s place in Georgia Tech’s triple-option. The quarterback has a tremendous arm that is now a centerpiece of the prolific James Madison offense and has allowed JMU to play a much more free-wheeling style.
“What we wanted to do as far as opening up the playbook and being a little bit more dynamic, knowing that we had some talented running backs, an offensive line that we felt was going to be good, some talented receivers, two really tight ends, we felt like we could spread the field in the run game and the pass game,” Withers said. “We didn’t know what the numbers were going to be, but we felt like they could be good.”
Good doesn’t do the James Madison offense justice. The Dukes average 48.7 points per game, which ranks second in the FCS and stacks up as the fourth most prolific when compared to the FBS. Ohio State’s defensive coordinator Urban Meyer’s first two years in Columbus, Withers seemingly took on some Meyer influence in crafting his team’s offensive identity.
Co-offensive coordinators Brett Elliott and Zak Kuhr joined Withers’ staff from Mississippi State and Old Dominion respectively, where running quarterbacks and prolific passing define the schemes. The two styles may seem contradictory, but Vad Lee is the perfect quarterback through which to bring the two philosophies together effectively.
I included Lee’s incredible performance in my Week 4 Four Downs, a signature game in what is looking very much like a Walter Payton Award-winning season for the quarterback. For those unfamiliar, the Walter Payton Award is given to the top offensive player in the FCS, an equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
Lee passed for 286 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 276 yards with another two scores in a 48-45 Dukes win.
Were the Payton Award given now, I can say confidently Lee would win in a walk. He’s fourth in the FCS in passing yards with 1,896. He’ll surpass his two-year total from Georgia Tech at some point in Saturday’s game against No. 11-ranked Richmond.
His interception total is somewhat high at 10, three more than Lee threw a season ago, But then, averaging just shy of 100 rushing yards per game with five scores, Lee brings a dimension few quarterbacks can match. His 690 rushing yards are 11th-most in the FCS and just 12 fewer than the subdivision’s top rushing quarterback — Cal Poly’s Chris Brown, who plays in a triple option.
Vad Lee has grown from the inconsistent quarterback at Georgia Tech into one of the game’s most exciting playmakers at James Madison. His rise deserves exposure, and that makes ESPN’s decision to visit the FCS program this weekend just a little bit more satisfying.