FRISCO, Texas -- Bob Trott, the James Madison football defensive coordinator, was given a tough task when he was hired in late January 2016. The coaching veteran of 40 years was going to be the fourth JMU defensive coordinator in four years, and was going to inherit a defense that had given up at least 28 points on seven different occasions during 2015.
"From the very first day, we talked about earning their trust," Trott said. "And I think that's important."
With a team that had gone through so much change, getting players to believe the message was the crucial first step.
"We all just bought in and realized that if we stick together and do what they tell us, we can do truly amazing things," redshirt senior linebacker Gage Steele said.
Steele has flourished under the new coaching staff. After a promising freshman season with 106 tackles and three forced fumbles, he had a sophomore slump, recording just 55 tackles and starting only three games. Playing for Trott, Steele has regained the spark that he showed freshman year.
"I wasn't happy with how the defense was playing," Steele said. "Change is good, change is inevitable. That means bigger and better things are coming."
The Second Team All-CAA linebacker leads the Dukes with 98 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss. His resurgence was highlighted in the FCS Second Round victory against New Hampshire, when he grabbed an interception and returned it 25 yards with multiple Wildcats on his back.
While the 2015 offense was spectacular with Vad Lee at the helm, the defense failed to get stops in big games. No. 11 Richmond scored 59 points on 305 rushing yards on Oct. 24 and No. 16 William & Mary scored 44 points the following week, both resulting in losses. The Dukes were knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by Colgate after the Raiders gained 463 yards of total offense and scored 44 points.
The 2016 defense took the opposite trajectory, improving and becoming more formidable as the season wore on. A turning point came on Oct. 15 against New Hampshire, when the Dukes held a 42-12 lead in the fourth quarter and barely withstood a furious comeback to win 42-39. The game served as a valuable lesson against getting complacent at the end of games.
"Every time after that game, it was like 'we're not going to let that happen again,'" Trott said.
Redshirt senior Martez Stone has seen his personal performances rise after the New Hampshire game as well. The defensive lineman from Cleveland, Ohio has recorded at least two tackles in every game since Oct. 15 and totaled 5.5 sacks in that time. Stone recorded four tackles and a sack in each of the playoff wins over New Hampshire and Sam Houston State. The increase in level of play can be attributed to the energy and emotion of the line.
"We all, on that defense, play with a lot of emotion," Stone said. "As I begin to express myself and show emotion, it can rub off on other d-linemen. But as they express themselves, I get hyped too. It's like energy being fluctuated back and forth."
The Penguins OL will get put to the test with these 3 JMU defenders. pic.twitter.com/jrdfTlM6n7— FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) January 6, 2017
The improvement over the season has culminated in playoff success. Sam Houston State had the highest-scoring offense in the FCS before the Dukes held them to a season-low seven points, which came off a fourth-quarter touchdown well after the game was out of reach. The following week, the Dukes held the five-time reigning national champions to 17 points on the road. While Stone's line and Steele's linebackers have been performing, the secondary did not allow a passing touchdown in the first three playoff games.
Now the defense faces one final test: the national championship against Youngstown State on January 7th.
"This team did some pretty incredible things to win on the road the way we did," Trott said. "We kept getting better, and credit to the players, they bought into what we were doing."