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Closing in on Maryland passing record, Mount Saint Joe quarterback Billy Atkins commits to James Madison

Mount St. Joseph Gaels quarterback Billy Atkins IV (10) passes against the McDonogh Eagles during the second quarter of the 2019 MIAA A Conference football championship at Archbishop Spalding High School Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Mount St. Joseph Gaels quarterback Billy Atkins IV (10) passes against the McDonogh Eagles during the second quarter of the 2019 MIAA A Conference football championship at Archbishop Spalding High School Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Billy Atkins set Mount Saint Joseph’s single-game passing record as a sophomore with 425 yards. On Thursday, Atkins, who will be a senior for the Gaels this fall, reached another lofty goal when he committed to James Madison to continue his football career.

Football Championship Subdivision teams usually wait for Football Bowl Subdivision teams to gather talent and lock down their commitments. The commitments for the FCS schools usually happen in late June. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, teams have expedited their recruiting processes and allowed for Atkins and teammates like Jabari Eichols to be offered earlier.

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“I had like five schools that I was trying to decide between,” said Atkins. “Then, I narrowed it down to three — it was Buffalo, Delaware and JMU. Finally, I decided to commit to JMU yesterday. It was pretty exciting.”

The Dukes played in the 2019 FCS championship game and finished with a 14-2 record and a No. 2 FCS ranking. Head coach Curt Cignetti has an 81-28 career record and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery coached Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens. The decision became a slam dunk for Atkins.

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“JMU is known for being a high-level program — that’s just a fact,” Atkins said. "They’ve been that way for a good while now. The one coach I was pretty close with was Shane Montgomery. He’s the quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator. I really enjoyed reading into his bio and seeing all of his accomplishments. He coached guys like Big Ben and Philip Rivers, used those guys’ talents and brought them to be who they are today. It was definitely very intriguing to me.

“The campus is beautiful — I went up there last Sunday and saw the campus. Obviously, I couldn’t go inside or take an official visit or things of that nature, but the campus is beautiful area and it sold me on that standpoint.”

Before committing to JMU, Atkins had Buffalo, Holy Cross, Morgan State, Virginia Military Institute and William & Mary on his radar. Atkins is ranked the 57th player in Maryland’s 2021 class and the 104th-ranked pro-style quarterback in the country, per 247Sports.

As a junior, Atkins was the state leader in passing yards with 3,089, adding 36 touchdowns, seven interceptions, a passer rating of 121.6 and 120 rushing yards. He also won an MIAA championship with Mount Saint Joe (10-2, 5-1), their first outright championship in 70 years.

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“I still remember the day my dad handed me my first football. Since that day, I’ve spent countless hours with the dedication, support and coaching from my dad, in perfecting my craft,” Atkins wrote in a tweet. "I want to thank both of my parents for their love throughout this journey.

“I want to also thank all of my coaches who’ve pushed me to be the player I am today. Finally, I would like to thank Coach [Curt] Cignetti and Coach [Shane] Montgomery for believing in me enough to offer me this opportunity! With that being said, I am 100% committed to continuing my academic and athletic career at... James Madison University.”

He sits at seventh place for Maryland’s all-time passing yards record with 6.968 yards and is third all-time in career passing touchdowns with 88. The Gaels are adding head coach Dom Damico, who replaces Rich Holzer and returns a majority of their offensive starters. If Atkins gets the chance to play this season, he has some high hopes for the possibility of what can come.

“Our team is still very, very confident,” Atkins said. "Coach Damico has done a great job of keeping the guys together. He’s not coaching offense, but will have a big hand in the offense. I have full faith in Coach Damico. He’ll do a great job of building our team up. I fully believe that will be just as powerful as we were last year, offensively and defensively. We lost some guys, but our young guys are ready to play.

“Our receiving corps are still ready to play and they’ll be fine. We’re still keeping the same offense. So, things will be alright. I’m trying to break the all-time Maryland record for yards and touchdowns. That’s exciting for me, but I’m looking forward to winning a championship for my team this year and go back-to-back.”

Dont’e Thornton narrows his list to six schools

Mount Saint Joe wide receiver Dont’e Thornton now has just six schools on his recruiting list — Arizona State, Florida State, Notre Dame, Oregon, USC and Virginia. 12 schools made Thornton’s original cut in April.

Thornton is considered to be one of the top receivers in the 2021 recruiting class, rated as a four-star prospect and the number one player in Maryland, per 247Sports. The rising senior receiver previously committed to Penn State last April before decommitting in August. Penn State, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia were among the schools to be put on the chopping block.

As a junior, Thornton compiled 1,021 yards and 16 touchdowns on 38 receptions. He would also be named as a Baltimore Sun All-Metro, All-MIAA and Baltimore Touchdown Club Elite 22 selection.

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