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Anthony Chiusano | | January 5, 2018

How Riley Stapleton quickly emerged as JMU's go-to receiver

FRISCO, Texas — Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Riley Stapleton had no idea what his stat line looked like in the immediate aftermath of a 31-28 win against Weber State one month ago in the FCS quarterfinals.

There was no time to dwell on numbers. After all, he and James Madison were focused on erasing a 28-20 deficit with just 3:14 remaining, needing a touchdown, two-point conversion and game-winning field goal as time expired to keep its perfect season and shot at repeating as FCS champs alive.

FCS CHAMPIONSHIP: Complete coverage from Frisco | GameCenter

But soon after the final second ticked off the clock on an overcast night in Harrisonburg, Virginia on Dec. 8, Stapleton learned about his career day: eight receptions, 189 yards and one 40-yard touchdown with 2:08 remaining to lead to the game-tying two-point conversion.

“After the game someone told me what they were and I was shocked because I’ve never done anything like that, let alone in the playoffs,” said Stapleton at Thursday's FCS Championship media day in Frisco, Texas.

Stapleton entered the playoffs with just 19 receptions, 187 yards and two touchdowns. But since postseason play began, the Indiana, Pennsylvania native has developed into the Dukes' go-to target. In only three playoff games, he's surpassed both his regular season yards and touchdowns marks (321 and three, respectively) while hauling in 16 catches. 

The 6-5 receiver said the biggest factor in his recent success has been his health. Stapleton missed two games in October due to ankle and hand injuries but has played in every game since Nov. 4. Meanwhile, as other Dukes on the offensive side dealt with late-season injuries, it was Stapleton's turn to step up.

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“My role got bumped up and I was fortunate enough to make a couple of plays to help our team win,” Stapleton said.

Stapleton made more than a few plays in that win against Weber State. In addition to his late touchdown down the left sideline, he also came down with a first-half circus catch where he snatched the ball with one hand and pinned it against a Wildcats defender to move the chains on third down.

Stapleton followed that performance with a two-touchdown day against South Dakota State in the semifinals to clinch a second straight trip to Frisco against North Dakota State.

“They’ve really highlighted him, and he’s a terrific, big target in the red zone. He just made play after play against Weber [State]," Bison coach Chris Klieman said Thursday. "I’m really impressed with him. He’s a great football player and we’ll always have to know where he is, for sure.”

James Madison quarterback Bryan Schor said that Stapleton's emergence was inevitable, having practiced with him for the past three years. He added that his trust level with Stapleton is steady and he continues to give the big target plenty of opportunities on one-on-one balls in crucial situations.

  Stapleton (10) had two touchdowns in JMU's semifinals win over South Dakota State.

“He wants to be great. I’ve seen it in Riley for a couple years now, and I think I was surprised he didn’t have the success in the [regular] season that we expected him to," Schor said. "But he was beat up with different injuries. To have him healthy now and playing the way he’s playing, it’s been really good for us.”

This is Stapleton's second visit to Frisco for the FCS Championship, as James Madison defeated Youngstown State last year for its second title in program history. But Stapleton registered zero catches in 11 games as a primary special teamer last season. This year, as a key figure in the No. 1 Dukes' high-flying offense, he's embracing the chance to make a crucial impact.

“I had a bigger role this year. Last year I was on special teams, and I took pride in that," Stapleton said. "Just a little more focus [this year], still work just as hard. I’m just really looking forward to ceasing the opportunity.”

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