Mike O’Cain able as JMU’s offensive coordinator

JMU offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain.

JMU offensive coordinator Mike O’Cain.

This story is on JMU offensive coordinator Mike O’Cain and how JMU’s offense is doing under him through seven games. The story also covers what happened during a maligned two-year run as Virginia Tech’s play-caller in 2011 and 2012. The story ran Oct. 24, 2013.

HARRISONBURG, Va— Wednesday at practice, James Madison football coach Mickey Matthews admitted something new about last offseason’s offensive coordinator search that resulted in the hiring of Mike O’Cain after Hal Mumme backed out.

“Deep down, I wasn’t for sure that Mike wasn’t a better fit,” Matthews said. “He’d been coaching a big, strong quarterback at Virginia Tech [Logan Thomas], and we had a big, strong quarterback [Michael Birdsong], and I was going to have Hal run the ball more. I was actually worried about that.”

As the head coach at Division III McMurry University in Texas in 2012, Mumme — an innovator of the pass-loving Air Raid offense and a close of friend of the run-leaning Matthews — threw the ball 69 percent of the time and got 85 percent of his offense through the air.

Mumme, formerly the coach at Kentucky, took JMU’s OC job in February only to renege days before a scheduled press conference in Harrisonburg to become the passing-game coordinator at Southern Methodist, averting Matthews’ anticipated friction and opening the door for O’Cain.

Seven games into the 2013 season, O’Cain, a polite and professional coach, is proving to be a very good fit.

The Dukes (5-2 overall, 2-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association) are having their best offensive season since 2008, averaging 32.7 points and 428.6 yards per game — statistics that rank 32nd and 35th in 122-team I-AA — thanks to an up-tempo attack that’s averaging 76 plays a game and has twice come three snaps short of breaking the JMU record for most plays in the game: 96.

The Dukes are throwing it 38 percent of the time and running it 62.

“It starts with the [players],” O’Cain said after practice this week. “We’ve got a good group of young men and they’re talented. They work very hard; they’ve bought into what we’re doing. They have fun at practice. They work hard at practice and then for the most part, we’ve played pretty well.”

JMU had not averaged more than 28.8 points a game since 2008, when it put up 38.1 a contest on the way to the I-AA semifinals. Between 2009 and 2012, the Dukes averaged just 22.6 points a game. The worst year was 2010 when they managed just 17.7 an outing and finished last in the CAA in total offense at 293.5 yards a game.

“I am so pleased with Mike,” Matthews said. “I think everyone in the JMU nation is thrilled.”

That wasn’t so true when O’Cain was hired.

The 59-year-old had just been fired at Virginia Tech after the Hokies struggled through a miserable season that resulted in 7-6 record, their worst in two decades, and a staff purging. Tech’s offense was particularly maligned, as it averaged just 25.1 points per game.

O’Cain, Tech’s quarterbacks coach and the play-caller in 2011-12, took a lot of blame, helping to make him a less-than-exciting offensive coordinator hire for JMU. But Matthews and Curt Newsome, Tech’s former offensive line coach who was fired along with O’Cain and also is now on staff at JMU, said O’Cain was unfairly criticized.

O’Cain called plays in Blacksburg, but the offense wasn’t his. Bryan Stinespring, now Tech’s tight ends coach, was the offensive coordinator, and head coach Frank Beamer also had significant input.

“He was not in charge at Tech, and I think that was the biggest [issue],” Matthews said. “When I interviewed him, he never said anything, but I could tell — we had competed against them. … He wasn’t the offensive coordinator, but they asked him to call plays. I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

When asked if the arrangement was limiting, O’Cain — who described himself as “just the play-caller” and said “[Stinespring] and Coach Beamer got together and talked about it before they ever talked to me”— said no.

“I had as much input at Virginia Tech as I wanted to,” O’Cain said. “Now, I didn’t have final say. Stiney always had final say, but there was nothing that was a problem with that, and really the play-caller is just a guy that does it on Saturday. But it’s really not that difficult. Now, there are times it can be, and last fall it was tough. It wasn’t so tough because I was the play-caller; we just had a tough situation.”

But Newsome, who spent seven seasons at Tech with O’Cain, said things could have been smoother.

“That’s always a hard situation because you’re the play-caller and there’s the coordinator,” Newsome said. “It’s a lot easier, no matter what the situation is, if the play-caller’s the coordinator. That’s easier on everybody.”

That’s what situation O’Cain has at JMU. Matthews called plays during the 2011 season, but is now merely a self-described “consultant.” Matthews told O’Cain he wanted to run a fast-paced offense, and the rest was left to O’Cain, who said he makes a point to involve the staff on decisions related to the offense. Still, unlike at Virginia Tech, the ultimate say is O’Cain’s.

“It’s not me saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do,” O’Cain said. “Now, I have to tie it all together and make the final decision of what and how much we’re going to do, but I want ideas. …  I can’t think of everything and so I want all those guys to feel like they have input and opportunity to say. Then on Saturdays, I’m the play-caller, but between series we talk about what we want to do.”

So far it’s worked. Going into Saturday’s game at William & Mary (4-3, 1-2), JMU is in contention for the CAA championship and a berth to the I-AA playoffs. O’Cain said he’s having fun, but when asked if he felt somewhat vindicated by the Dukes’ offensive performance this season, he just said he’s happy to be in Harrisonburg.

“Did I like what happened down there? Absolutely not. I would be absolutely lying [if I said I did],” O’Cain said of Virginia Tech. “But at the same time, I was just thankful for the opportunity to come here and that Mickey had enough confidence in me to bring me here, and basically … the only thing that he really said is, ‘I want to go fast.’ And he’s pretty much let us do what we wanted to do.”

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