Mike Houston courtesy JMU Athletics

Saturday's CAA Football opener a game of firsts for first-year head coaches

New James Madison head coach Mike Houston was in Baltimore in July before the annual football media day event at M&T Bank Stadium.

Houston and other JMU athletic personnel took in a Baltimore Orioles game at Camden Yards and Houston let his two young sons hang out with Brandon Ravenel, a senior wideout for the Dukes.

“What sticks out is what a quality person he is off the field,” Houston said of Ravenel. “Five minutes in, you feel comfortable with him. There is no hesitation.”

Building trust with people he has just met is part of the learning curve for Houston, who has the high-scoring Dukes (2-1) ranked No. 11 in the country in the STATS FCS Top 25 and No. 7 in the FCS Coaches Poll this week.

JMU quarterback Bryan Schor confirmed the biggest change under Houston dealt with trust after former coach Everett Withers bolted for Texas State after two years in Harrisonburg.

“He (Houston) is going to trust us and we will trust him back,” said Schor, who has completed 72.2% of his passes with four touchdowns and just one interception in 54 attempts.

“He is an unbelievable coach,” Ravenel said of Houston, who came to JMU from The Citadel. “He took the time to emphasize for us to develop as people. He has come in and everyone has bought into him.”

Houston and the only other first-year coach in the Colonial Athletic Association — Joe Harasymiak of Maine (0-2) — will meet Saturday on ASN at the Black Bears home field in Orono. It will be the first CAA game of the season for both teams and the first meeting between the teams in four years.

Harasymiak, at 30, is the youngest head coach in Division I. He was on the Maine staff of former head coach Jack Cosgrove for five years, the past two as defensive coordinator.

“There were not a lot of changes I had to make,” Harasymiak said. “We have six new coaches but the guys are continuing to buy in. We have to get this losing culture out the door here” after six losses in a row dating back to last year.

Cosgrove was the head coach at Maine for 23 years before he stepped down after last season. He is now the senior associate athletics director at the school.

“He is the reason Maine is what it is to be completely honest with you,” Harasymiak said of Cosgrove. “He is Maine football. He kept it sustained for a long period of time. I can’t replace him.”

But Maine defensive lineman Pat Ricard said Harasymiak can relate to his players since he is nearly the same age.

“I think he is trying to get the message across to players that losing is not OK,” Ricard said. “He played college football not too long ago. For him and a lot of the staff they relate to us and our generation.”

Harasymiak, a captain at Springfield College in Massachusetts, said his conversations with Cosgrove this summer had little to do with Xs and Os.

“A lot of it has been everything (else),” Harasymiak said. “That has been the biggest change for me. As an assistant you watch film. Now it is 95 guys (to be in charge of). Everyone is on me.”

Maine began the season with a 24-21 loss to UConn and then fell 45-3 at Toledo. The Black Bears were off last weekend, which means two weeks between games before facing JMU.

The adjustment for Houston at JMU has gone much smoother, thanks to a high-powered offense.

“Change is never easy for anyone,” Houston said. “I do think the kind of kids (we have) has probably helped. They have really bought in. I have been in Joe’s shoes before when I took over (at Lenoir-Rhyne). The kids know you, you know them. You are probably not going to change the system. I think the big thing that we stress is we are going to play together as one unit. We are going to be a physical, hard-nose football team.”

JMU set several school records when it began the season with an 80-7 win over Morehead State. The Dukes followed that up with a 56-21 decision over Central Connecticut State, also at home.

JMU played Saturday at North Carolina and lost 56-28.

Schor, the JMU quarterback, was 14 of 22 for 218 with one touchdown at UNC. Now the attention turns to the CAA opener a year after JMU finished in a three-way tie for first last year in the conference with Richmond and William & Mary.

“We are expecting a hard-fought game. I don’t have too much knowledge of Maine since we have not played them since I have been at JMU,” said Schor, a junior from Milford, Pa.

JMU running backs Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah are both averaging more than 90 yards per game.

“Obviously the offensive line has impressed me,” Harasymiak said of JMU. “The offensive line moves well. They are physical at the point of attack. The running backs are very tough to tackle. I think the quarterback is a gamer. He manages the offense and he makes big throws.”

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