“He’s going to have a lot more opportunities than he’s had the whole time he’s been here combined just next week,” Cowboys Coach Mike McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday. “He needs to perform. He’s got to make sure his preparation is in tune. And there’s just some things you do from the second seat that goes on throughout the league. This is a big step. This is a big opportunity for Ben DiNucci.”
Curt Cignetti, DiNucci’s coach during his senior year at JMU, texted with his former pupil a few days after Prescott went down and has no doubt DiNucci will rise to the occasion if called upon.
“Ben’s a competitor,” Cignetti said in a phone interview on Thursday as he prepared for JMU’s first fall practice. “I know he’s excited about the potential opportunity. He’s one play away, and he’ll do everything he can to put himself in the best position through preparation. He’s an extremely confident guy. If it comes to that, where he ends up playing, he’s going to go on the field with a lot of confidence, and he’ll be ready.”
The 6-foot-3, 209-pound DiNucci took a roundabout road to Harrisonburg before joining the Cowboys. He was the 2014 Gatorade Pennsylvania player of the year as a senior at Pine-Richland High in Gibsonia, where he became the first player in state history to eclipse 4,000 passing yards in a season. After backing out of a verbal commitment to Penn, he signed with Pitt and redshirted as a freshman. DiNucci backed up Nathan Peterman the following year and saw his first real action in 2017, appearing in 10 games and starting six.
After the season, during which he threw five touchdowns and five interceptions, DiNucci transferred, turning down scholarship offers elsewhere to enroll at JMU as a preferred walk-on, with two years of eligibility remaining.
DiNucci started all 13 games in his first season at JMU, which was coming off consecutive appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision title game under coach Mike Houston. DiNucci led the Dukes to a 9-4 record while throwing 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, with five of those picks coming in JMU’s second round playoff loss to Colgate. Cignetti was then hired to replace Houston, who left for East Carolina after the season, and held a three-way competition for the starting quarterback job that lasted into fall camp. For the second straight year, DiNucci beat out Cole Johnson and Gage Moloney.
“The year before, he had had a good year, but a few too many turnovers,” Cignetti, who was previously a head coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Elon, said of DiNucci. “There were some things we had to clean up, and he bought in and had a tremendous season. He jumped right in and he studied. When I think of Ben, I think of a guy who has kind of always been in the saddle, always been the guy, and has had a lot of success through the years.”
DiNucci threw for 3,441 yards, 29 touchdowns and only six interceptions as a senior while also rushing for 569 yards and seven scores. He won Colonial Athletic Association offensive player of the year honors and led the Dukes back to the FCS championship game, where they lost to North Dakota State, 28-20.
A few days before that game in Frisco, Tex., DiNucci had a chance encounter with McCarthy at the JMU team hotel, which was attached to the Cowboys’ practice facility where McCarthy was introduced as Dallas’s new coach. McCarthy is a fellow western Pennsylvania native; in fact, his brother was DiNucci’s middle school basketball coach.
“I walked right into the elevator and he was standing in the back right of it, and I made it a point to go stand by him,” DiNucci told the Daily News-Record in April. “I introduced myself and just brought up that his brother was my basketball coach and I said, ‘Welcome to Dallas.’ He had heard of Pine-Richland and was asking me a few things.”
DiNucci and McCarthy would reconnect in April, when DiNucci joined Mike Cawley, a sixth-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1996, as the only JMU quarterbacks to be drafted. Cawley never appeared in an NFL game.
“We were scared to wait on you ’til free agency,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told DiNucci after Dallas selected him with the 231st overall pick. “We just drafted you.”
“You just made my damn day,” DiNucci replied.
After the draft, McCarthy compared DiNucci to a young Marc Bulger, a Pittsburgh native who had an eight-year career with the St. Louis Rams and made two Pro Bowls. Cignetti said DiNucci’s skills remind him a little bit of a couple of NFL starting quarterbacks he knows pretty well from his seven years as an assistant at N.C. State.
“He’s got a really quick release and a lot of different deliveries, like Philip Rivers, and he’s got mobility, like Russell Wilson has good mobility,” said Cignetti, who coached Rivers and recruited Wilson during his time with the Wolfpack from 2000 through 2006. “He can beat you with his legs and arm. He sees the field, he’s savvy and he’s a good leader. He plays with an edge.”
McCarthy said Thursday that he’s working on getting DiNucci acclimated to the No. 2 role, which will include taking some reps with the first team in practice. McCarthy is confident Dalton will make a “seamless” transition as Prescott’s replacement after starting for the past nine years in Cincinnati.
“Frankly, I’m not as concerned about Andy Dalton’s preparation as much as I’m focused on Ben DiNucci’s,” he said. “ … That’s where the biggest preparation change is going on.”