Run or pass, James Madison’s Vad Lee is always a threat to score


James Madison’s redshirt senior quarterback Vad Lee arrived on campus before the 2014 season eager to air out the ball. Lee was a former two-year starter at Georgia Tech, home to one of the nation’s most prolific offenses.

But at Tech, those yards typically came via the ground, as Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense methodically grinds the ball downfield. Passes are mixed in as the football equivalent of baseball’s changeup following a relentless diet of fastballs.

“I know when I talked to him when I first got the job, he wanted to throw the ball more,” said Dukes’ quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Brett Elliott. “He wasn’t a big fan of the triple-option.”

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Elliott is another recent arrival to campus, coming to Harrisonburg, Va., in 2015 from the coaching staff at Mississippi State.

“Most of the offense is similar to what we ran at State,” said Elliott. “A lot of it is very similar, with just different verbiage.”

He described the Dukes’ scheme as an up-tempo, spread offense and called it a hybrid of Oregon’s read-option and the scheme Elliott helped guide at Mississippi State. While at State, he was part of an offensive staff that led the 2014 Bulldogs to their first Orange Bowl since 1941. Quarterback Dak Prescott was named first-team all-SEC, and the team won 10 games for the first time in its history. They also broke 29 individual and team single-season records during the campaign.

Lee’s “heels are at five,” said Elliott, describing the depth at which the Dukes’ quarterback takes the snap from center. It was SMU, however, who were on their heels last Saturday, as JMU (4-0, 1-0 CAA) marched down the field late in the game to beat Southern Methodist, 48-45, in Dallas. With just 27 seconds left, Lee dropped a 17-yard pass over two Mustang defenders to sophomore receiver John Miller. Miller ran a perfect fade route and worked himself open for the winning score.

It was JMU’s first win over an FBS team since knocking off in-state foe Virginia Tech in September 2010, a landmark victory that still echoes in the Shenandoah Valley.

Sophomore linebacker Andrew Ankrah helped seal the win against SMU with a career day on defense. He registered four sacks, forced a pair of fumbles, and tallied seven solo tackles. Ankrah earned CAA Defensive Player of the Week honors for his effort.

Thanks to the win, the Dukes enjoyed a shortened plane ride home and got back to work this week at Bridgeforth Stadium. There they’ll host a tough CAA opponent in Stony Brook on Saturday. Last year, the Dukes pulled out a 27-24 road win against the Seawolves (2-1, 1-1 CAA) as part of an overall 9-4 campaign that ended with a first-round loss in the NCAA playoffs.

With Lee at quarterback and the Dukes’ running an up-tempo offense, the team often creates favorable matchups on the field. Against SMU, Lee rushed for 276 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another 289 yards and three more scores. He earned CAA Offensive Player of the Week accolades for his work.

At the linebacker level it is difficult for opposing defenses to run in the appropriate personnel based on down and distance to stop the dual threat quarterback. Even if prepped for the Dukes, Lee is well-schooled in spotting the opponents’ weakness in the context of a single play and exploiting it.

“The great thing about Vad is he’s worked really hard this year on understanding the entire concept for each play. He understands the defense and how you want to attack it. We give him a lot of freedom; our goal as a staff is to get him on the field seeing the play like a coach,” said Elliott.

Saturday’s game is part of family weekend at JMU, and the Dukes’ will face a solid Stony Brook defense in front of a packed house. The Seawolves’ senior Victor Ochi is a force on the defensive line. The Valley Stream, N.Y., native registered 11 tackles against then No. 13 New Hampshire as Stony Brook dominated 31-6 win on Sept. 19. Ochi was named the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Week following the victory.

“They have a really good defense, they’re big and physical, probably one of the best defenses that we’ll face,” said Elliott. “One of the things we have to do better this week is protect the football. That’s our theme: get better every week. We game plan for the opponent, but we focus more on getting better ourselves.”

Above: Above: James Madison’s Vad Lee carries for some of his school-record 276 yards rushing against SMU. (Photo courtesy of JMU Athletic Communications)
Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.