We have seen a bevy of talented FCS NFL Draft prospects during this college bowl season and some could have a lasting impact on the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft. One of those prospects is James Madison University’s quarterback Ben DiNucci. The talented signal-caller just wrapped up a great college career with a heartbreaking 28-20 loss to North Dakota State in the FCS Championship game this past Saturday.
Below I will take a look at DiNucci’s fantastic career with the Dukes and profile his journey from small school stud to legitimate 2020 NFL Draft prospect. The former Pittsburgh Panther transfer has evolved into a potential late-round pick after an up-and-down start to his college football career.
Storied prep career brings high expectations
Before he became an NFL Draft prospect, DiNucci was a decorated high school player at Pine-Richland in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. He was named the Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of Year and the first player in the history of Pennsylvania football to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. During his senior season, DiNucci threw for over 4,200 yards and a mind-boggling 46 touchdowns.
The talented DiNucci is a tremendous athlete and showcased that in high school. He was a dual-sport star who also excelled on the basketball court. His athletic accolades earned him the number ten overall spot on ESPN’s top prospect list, and he would eventually decide to continue his local hero role and enroll at Pittsburgh to begin his college career.
DiNucci’s highly anticipated college career started slowly, as he redshirted his freshman season and only played in two games as a redshirt sophomore for the Panthers. The following year, he started six games as a redshirt sophomore after replacing injured starter Max Browne. The results were mixed, as DiNucci threw for 1,091 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. He was able to make some gutsy plays for the team, but never established himself as a star and was replaced the following season by current Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Following his redshirt sophomore season at Pitt, DiNucci decided to transfer and enroll at James Madison University to continue his education and playing career. His arrival was a tremendous get for the Dukes, and it was undoubtedly a match made in heaven for the two sides. In his first year as a starter for James Madison in 2018, DiNucci once again struggled some en route to 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. However, he showcased his great athleticism again and running ability with 433 yards and nine scores on the ground.
As DiNucci entered his redshirt senior season in 2019, expectations were very high once again for the talented quarterback. There was a noticeable improvement for DiNucci in his final season, as he completed over 70% of his passes for 3,441 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also cut his interception total in half with only six thrown this past season. DiNucci also ran for 569 yards and seven more scores as he showed off what a great NFL Draft prospect he has turned himself into as he closed out his final collegiate season.
Unique prospect making a name for himself
Regardless of the rocky start to his career, DiNucci established himself as a winner with James Madison. He compiled a 23-6 record over two seasons, including an appearance in the FCS championship this year. DiNucci’s play-style lends himself to potential turnovers and miscues, but he plays with grit, determination, and improvisation. He has decent size for the position and a live arm that can make most throws at the NFL level. DiNucci’s arm strength can lead to big plays downfield as evidenced by this Hail Mary throw to end the half against Weber State.
Play of the Day:
Ben DiNucci hit Riley Stapleton on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half to take a commanding 24-7 lead into halftime. pic.twitter.com/bjNvNFBMd8
— JMU Sports News (@JMUSportsNews) December 22, 2019
These traits may lead DiNucci to become a late-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He will likely start as a third-stringer at the next level but could develop into one of the better backups in the league and capable fill-in starter down the line.
The last James Madison quarterback drafted into the NFL was Mike Cawley by the Indianapolis Colts in 1996. Only four Dukes have heard their name called since 2000, and that seemingly does not bode well for any current James Madison standouts. However, Ben DiNucci could be the exception here as a standout NFL Draft prospect. He has a great chance to hear his name called in the sixth or seventh round this year. Cornerback Jimmy Moreland was drafted by the Washington Redskins last year in the seventh round, so DiNucci could make it two years in a row that a Duke is drafted into the NFL this April.
The Redskins are an interesting fit and could consider DiNucci with one of their late-round selections. Case Keenum was signed before the 2019 season to compete with Colt McCoy and presumed rookie starter, Dwayne Haskins. The feeling is that Keenum will not be back with Washington in 2020, so competition for the backup spot behind Haskins will be needed moving forward. DiNucci presents a similar skillset to Keenum.
DiNucci is a smart player who sees the field well and can use his legs to make plays outside the pocket when pressured. On the other hand, the two also share a similar gunslinger-type mentality and do not always do the best job of protecting the football. DiNucci will need to prove he can stay out of trouble with turnovers and make better decisions on the field.
Similar path as “Duck”
Another player with a similar skill set is Pittsburgh Steeler’s Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Hodges was a fellow small-schooler out of Samford who found success in 2019. I profiled the resourceful Steelers overachiever following a Week 6 loss to the Ravens back in October. He was an undrafted rookie free agent who took over as the third-string quarterback following a trade of former backup Joshua Dobbs.
Following an injury to Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph’s poor play, Hodges finally received a shot in the lineup in the Week 6 contest against the Baltimore Ravens. He went on to win his first start the following week against the Chargers and finished the season with 1,063 passing yards, five touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He will battle for a roster spot again in 2020 following the expected return of Ben Roethlisberger, but he showed promise and a spark during his rookie season.
DiNucci can offer the same type of jolt to a team, similar to the plays he made during his short stint as the starter with Pittsburgh and again while leading James Madison to a 14-2 record this season. NFL decision-makers and evaluators will love his tenacity and confidence, while his physical tools alone should get him a shot as a third-stringer or on an NFL practice squad in 2020.
I predict DiNucci will find himself in real NFL regular-season game action sooner than later. Ben DiNucci is a gamer and the legitimate NFL Draft prospect will make an NFL squad this upcoming season following a selection April.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the 2020 NFL Draft. You can follow him at @sgormanPFN on Twitter.