When the Dallas Cowboys spent a seventh-round draft pick on quarterback Ben DiNucci from James Madison this spring, there was a widespread chorus from the team’s fans.
NFL scouts certainly knew what kind of player he was after tracking DiNucci’s long, winding path throughout college football. The Pittsburgh-bred quarterback cracked the top 10 in several school passing marks — including completions, attempts, passing yards and passing TDs — despite spending only two years there.
And without an NFL preseason in 2020, the Cowboys learned more about him in Week 7 when he unexpectedly was thrust into the lineup in the midst of an eventual 25-3 loss to the Washington Football Team. Andy Dalton, who had replaced injured starter Dak Prescott, was knocked out of the game following a late hit to the head from Washington’s Jon Bostic.
DiNucci, who turns 24 next month, became only the sixth seventh-round QB to play as a rookie in the past 15 years, completing two of three passes for 39 yards. (He also was sacked three times and fumbled twice.)
DiNucci will make his first NFL start in place of an injured Dalton on Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles in what theoretically is a battle for the NFC East playoff race. On Saturday, Dalton was officially ruled out for the game.
But most of the country is still learning about DiNucci. So who exactly is DiNucci? Here are four things you should know about him.
Started his college career at Pitt
As a high school player at Pine-Richland (Gibsonia, Pennsylvania), about 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, DiNucci racked up quite a resumé.
DiNucci was named USA Today second-team All-American and was the Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year, throwing for 7,619 yards and 72 touchdowns during his career — and the first Pennsylvania high school player to top the 4,000-yard mark in a season as a senior.
However, Rivals rated him only as a two-star recruit, and he struggled to generate recruiting buzz. DiNucci originally committed to Penn.
Pitt entered the mix late after losing one QB recruit and one transfer, and the school offered DiNucci. It was his dream school, and he jumped at the offer.
DiNucci was then-new head coach Pat Narduzzi’s first QB commitment that stuck. His offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, convinced Narduzzi to extend DiNucci the offer.
Ben DiNucci almost quit football
Things didn’t quite work out the way DiNucci had hoped with the Panthers.
He spent three seasons there, including his redshirt freshman year. And when DiNucci cracked the lineup — including six starts as a redshirt sophomore — he had a few bright spots.
DiNucci completed 88 of 158 passes for 1,091 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions as a sophomore. He came off bench to throw for a season-high 228 yards and a touchdown against Oklahoma State and ran for a TD and a two-point conversion against Penn State. DiNucci also threw for a touchdown in the Pinstripe Bowl against Northwestern.
It was clear that Kenny Pickett was the Panthers’ future at the position. DiNucci saw the writing on the wall and figured transferring was his best option.
“When I decided to transfer, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to play football anymore,” he said this spring. “When I was there, the fun kind of got taken out of the game.”
It’s a good thing he did, transferring to James Madison.
DiNucci started all 13 games in 2018, leading the Dukes to a 9-4 mark and a run in the FCS playoffs that year. He was named third-team all-Colonial Athletic Association.
As a redshirt senior in 2019, he was even better, despite having to win back the starting job when a new coaching staff took over. DiNucci started all 16 games, was named CAA Offensive Player of the Year and led the Dukes all the way to the FCS title game where they lost to Trey Lance and North Dakota State. For the season, he threw for 3,341 yards, 29 TDs and only six interceptions, completing 70.6 percent of his passes. DiNucci also ran for 569 yards and seven scores.
DiNucci outpassed Lance, 204 yards to 72, in the championship game. The Dukes lost, 28-20.
The location of that game provided DiNucci with a chance meeting that might have allowed him to be a rookie starter for the Cowboys.
First JMU quarterback in the NFL ... and a wild Mike McCarthy meeting
James Madison has never been considered a breeding ground for NFL talent.
Even so, there are recognizable alumni from the school who have made it to — and even thrived in — the league.
One of the most famous was former Washington wide receiver Gary Clark, a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champ who still ranks in the top 50 all time in receptions and yards in league history.
The other most famous JMU alum in league history is one Cowboys fans know well — Charles Haley. In one of the more decorated NFL careers, Haley was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after leading the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories and the San Francisco 49ers to two more.
In recent years, a handful of JMU players have made it to the NFL — former Eagles linebacker Akeem Jordan, former Bills linebacker Arthur Moats and former Cardinals offensive guard Earl Watford.
The school’s most infamous alum? It’s probably former Buffalo Bills kicker, Scott Norwood, who missed the would-be winning kick against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV.
JMU had never produced an NFL quarterback until DiNucci made his debut last week. (Mike Cawley was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1996 but never played in a regular-season game.)
And it’s kind of a miracle DiNucci is even on an active roster — or was drafted — in the first place.
DiNucci certainly had NFL talent but the COVID-19 limitations on the draft process tended to hurt smaller-school prospects, as pro days were canceled all over the country and DiNucci was not invited to a single postseason all-star game.
Prior to that, as James Madison was preparing for the FCS title game in Frisco, Texas, he ran into a coach — in an elevator — who knew his name. It was Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy was staying at the same hotel in Frisco that the JMU players were, and it turned out they had a few things in common. Both grew up in Pittsburgh, growing up in roughly the same area. In fact, McCarthy’s brother was actually DiNucci’s eighth-grade basketball coach.
“He was very familiar with our team,” DiNucci said. “I was kind of surprised that he knew who I was.”
After the Cowboys shocked more than one person — including DiNucci — by drafting him, DiNucci was ecstatic on draft weekend.
“It’s just crazy to see this thing come full circle,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity, and I’m so excited.”
The DiNucci-Ryan Fitzpatrick connection
Yes, DiNucci and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Harvard) are two FCS-level quarterbacks in the NFL. There are others.
When DiNucci starts Sunday he’ll be the first seventh-round rookie QB to start since Fitzpatrick did it in 2005 with the St. Louis Rams.
Fitzpatrick’s first NFL start unfolded in similar fashion. Opening-game starter Marc Bulger suffered a shoulder injury, and his backup, Jamie Martin, went down in Week 12 of that season. Enter Fitz with his team down big.
Fitzpatrick did what DiNucci last week was unable to do: rally his team to a shocking win. Trailing 24–3 at halftime to Houston, Fitzpatrick threw for 310 yards and three TDs as the Rams won, 33–27, in overtime. Fitzpatrick even was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Fitzpatrick earned the Rams’ next three starts but he couldn’t duplicate his relief-pitching magic. Fitzpatrick threw only one touchdown and seven interceptions in those three games, and the Rams lost all three. Martin soon replaced him.
Who knows how DiNucci’s trial will go? But if there’s ever a case study for a little-known quarterback overcoming early struggles to survive in the NFL, it’s Fitzpatrick. After all, he’s still active today and ranks 31st in passing yards and 34th in passing touchdowns all time.
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