Cignetti announces addition of defensive coordinator, assistant coach

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HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Head Coach Curt Cignetti announced the hires of Corey Hetherman and Matt Merritt to the James Madison football coaching staff on Thursday. Hetherman will serve as defensive coordinator, and Merritt will be an assistant coach for the Dukes.

Hetherman comes to Harrisonburg after spending the previous four seasons on the staff at Maine as defensive line coach, including the last three years as the Black Bears’ defensive coordinator. He led Maine’s “Black Hole” defense unprecedented heights in 2018, leading to the program winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship and the program’s first berth in the FCS semifinals.

Maine led the league in six defensive categories, including leading the nation in rushing defense (79.2) and ranking second in sacks (47). It additionally led the CAA in yards per carry allowed (2.4), interceptions (18), fumble recoveries (13) and fumble recoveries for a touchdown (3). The Black Bears were also second in third-down defense (28.4%) and fourth in total defense (313.1). Hetherman guided six Maine defenders to All-CAA status, including First Team member Kayon Whitaker and Second Team selection Charles Mitchell on the defensive line. Two players, in linebacker Sterling Sheffield and defensive back Manny Patterson, were also named All-Americans this month.

“I’m extremely excited to add Corey Hetherman to the staff as our defensive coordinator,” Cignetti said. “He has a track record for success at Maine. They played great defense this year, being number one against the run. His scheme presented a lot of problems in preparation. He’s extremely knowledgeable and comes highly recommended. Corey is an excellent recruiter and he’ll do a great job for us.”

Merritt spent the past two seasons on Cignetti’s staff at Elon, serving as the running backs coach. Elon ranked second in the CAA in rushing offense (199.5) this past season, led by CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year Jaylan Thomas and two-time All-CAA selection Malcolm Summers. The Phoenix’s running backs combined for over 3,800 yards and 30 scores over the past two seasons. Before Elon, Merritt was running backs coach for one season at Ohio Dominican and was a graduate assistant for Ohio State for four years, which included being part of the Buckeyes’ 2015 national championship.

“Matt’s an excellent running backs coach, he’s done a great job developing them at Elon,” Cignetti said. “He’s handled my special teams in the past but I want him to focus on the running backs here at JMU. He did a great job with Malcolm Summers, who was a Third Team running back. Matt had developed Malcolm to the point where he was probably the best running back in the conference, as well as mentoring Jaylan Thomas, who was Offensive Rookie of the Year. Matt will be a real plus for us and he’s developed into an excellent recruiter as well.”

Hetherman and Merritt join Cignetti’s initial hires, who include Director of Strength & Conditioning Brian Phillips, assistant coaches Mike Shanahan, Damian Wroblewski, Bryant Haines, Jerrick Hall and Ryan Smith and Director of Football Operations James Ferguson.