If Jamie Willis had his way, Ron’Dell Carter would have been a college tight end.
Carter had played primarily defensive end and tight end at Long Reach High School in Columbia, but also dabbled at wide receiver, H-back, quarterback, defensive tackle and linebacker. Among those positions, Willis, the Lightning coach, said Carter’s greatest potential was at tight end.
“People fail to realize that Ron’Dell probably has some of the best hands I’ve been around,” Willis recalled. “His ball skills are amazing. I thought he was a D-I tight end/H-back type kid, and I thought his way to the [NFL] would be through tight end.”
Carter, a redshirt senior defensive end at James Madison, said he got more letters from programs interested in him playing offense than defense and was recruited by Baylor, Wake Forest and Morgan State as a tight end after he chose to transfer from Rutgers after his redshirt freshman year there in 2016. But those offers didn’t intrigue him.
“If you’re a receiver or tight end, yeah, you’re the one in the end zone and everyone knows that you’re scoring the touchdowns, and that’s all good,” said the 6-foot-3, 269-pound Carter, who hails from Baltimore. “But there’s nothing better than sacking the quarterback. … If you ask any D-lineman that played another position in high school, they’ll tell you the same thing.”
The Dukes are probably grateful that Carter stuck to his roots. With Carter anchoring the defense, James Madison (11-1) is the No. 2 team in practically every NCAA Football Championship Subdivision poll and captured its third outright Colonial Athletic Association title in the past four seasons. The team will host to No. 6 Northern Iowa (10-4) in a playoff quarterfinal on Friday at 7 p.m. at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Virginia
ESPN college football analyst Huston Mason, who served as the color commentator for the Dukes’ 66-21 rout of No. 14 Monmouth in a second-round game on Saturday, said he was impressed with Carter’s ability to adjust on the fly.
“I think the great pass rushers all have a contingency plan if their first move gets shut down,” said Mason, who played at Georgia and had a brief stint with the Washington Redskins. “There’s a countermove in their back pockets that they can go to if the first plan of attack doesn’t work out, and that’s what I saw from him. I just think that he has multiple plans of attack within a single pass rush and that forces an offensive lineman into a situation where he can’t be right.”
A year after racking up 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 7½ sacks, Carter has been even better this fall. He is tied for second in the country in tackles for loss (24) with teammate and senior defensive end John Daka and ranks 12th in sacks (10½). He also leads James Madison in quarterback hurries (11) and ranks third on tackles (56).
“Words can’t explain how great this season has been,” he said. “When I first stepped foot on campus, I couldn’t imagine that I’d be in the position that I’m in now. I’ve definitely worked for it, and I’ve definitely earned it. Nothing was given, and it’s not a mistake. I put a lot of work in on the field and off the field, as a person and as a player, and it’s all paying off.”
Last month, Carter was rewarded when the CAA named him the Defensive Player of the Year. On Dec. 4, he accepted an invitation to participate in the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 18 at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California. And on Tuesday, he became one of three finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given annually to the top defensive player at the FCS level.
Dukes coach Curt Cignetti said Carter is well deserving of every personal honor.
“He’s the total package,” Cignetti said. “He’s got a great work ethic. He’s big, he’s about 265, 270 pounds, but yet he’s got really good speed and quickness and power. … He’s received a lot of accolades and won a lot of awards because of his production and what he’s put on tape and what he’s done on the field. I think he’s been truly an exceptional player for us.”
Carter has enjoyed eye-opening performances this season. He had six tackles for loss and one sack in a 38-10 victory at William and Mary on Oct. 19 with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in attendance (“I hope he took notice of that,” Carter quipped.), two sacks against Towson a week later and three tackles for loss and two sacks in a 55-21 rout at Rhode Island on Nov. 23. But he said his best outing occurred in a 45-38 overtime win at Stony Brook on Oct. 5, when he finished with zero sacks and tackles for loss, but had nine total tackles.
“But as far as the game being as close as it was and trying to be as mistake-free as possible, I think that was one of the games where I had the fewest mistakes,” he said. “I was just playing solid ball. Even if I didn’t make any sacks or any TFLs, there were critical moments when I made some big plays, and that mattered the most.”
Mason said Carter — who has tried to model his game after former Ravens and current Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and Chicago Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack — has a chance to join them in the NFL because he is a three-down defensive end.
“So many guys at that position think their job is to just get to the quarterback in predictable passing situations. At the next level, that’s definitely what they pay you for, but he’s a first-down, second-down, third-down defensive end, and I think that’s what makes him attractive to the NFL scouts,” said Mason, who co-hosts a weekday afternoon sports talk radio program in Atlanta. “He’s not just some pass-rushing specialist that you’re going to bring in on third-and-long. You can keep him in on first and second down because he’s got a high motor and he doesn’t take plays off.”
Carter said playing at the next level has been a lifelong objective since he began playing football at age 6. But he said the top priority is trying to help James Madison return to the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 11 at noon.
“We’re trying to get the job done,” he said. “We haven’t been able to get the job done. Two years ago, we lost to North Dakota State in the finals, and last year, we lost to Colgate in the second round. So we’re eager. We’re itching to get back there. We want to prove to people that we belong, and we’re trying to get there.”
Northern Iowa@James Madison
Friday, 7 p.m.