Curt Cignetti's school is located a little more than two hours from Washington and the James Madison coach is always forced to watch the Washington Football Team games on Sundays. In fact, last Sunday, he was complaining to his wife about that very fact when he looked up and saw his old quarterback on the field and actually playing.
"I said to my wife, 'Oh (expletive), DiNucci is going in the game!'" Cignetti recalled over the phone this week to NFL.com. "I mean, think about what a bad deal he was going into -- pouring rain, cold as hell, getting their butt kicked with no O-line… and sure enough he stuck that first pass right in there."
The DiNucci that Cignetti referred to is Ben DiNucci, a name most NFL fans had never heard until he entered the game in the Dallas Cowboys' eventual loss to Washington. Suddenly, with Andy Dalton still battling the effects of a concussion, the former seventh-round draft pick and JMU star is Dallas' starter tonight with the country watching against the Philadelphia Eagles.
In the surprise opportunity, DiNucci finished 2-of-3 for 39 yards, but was sacked three times and lost two fumbles. The hope for all involved is that tonight goes better.
So... who is this guy?
"Here's Ben DiNucci," Cignetti explained. "A guy with a lot of confidence, borderline cocky, a lot of energy. He's unflappable, he's got an edge. He's also got a lot of different releases like Philip Rivers. He's smart, man, and he's going to go in there with confidence. The biggest thing is, he's not going to go in there with big eyes. He's going to be jacked and ready to go."
Cignetti is clear -- he's not comparing DiNucci to Rivers, the former Chargers and now Colts QB. But he did coach Rivers at N.C. State and sees some similarities with their fire and how they can deliver the ball from all kinds of angles. Unlike Rivers, DiNucci's propensity to scramble on third downs could prove effective Sunday.
The confidence (or cockiness) stands out. It's what causes teammates to feed off him. In fact, several teammates praised his demeanor this week, as well as simply how he's throwing it.
"He's been slinging that thing," Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup told reporters this week.
Dallas has had success in the past with late-round quarterbacks who enter camp as the third-stringer emerging as starters. But no one expects DiNucci to be Dak Prescott. No one also expected Prescott to turn into a franchise starter, either, except maybe himself. What Cignetti wants is for DiNucci to get good protection and deliver a spark.
At JMU, DiNucci was the Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year, throwing for 3,441 yards with 29 TDs and just six interceptions. He is also a Pittsburgh area guy, which speaks to Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy.
In addition, McCarthy's QB coach with the Packers was Frank Cignetti, who is the JMU coach's brother. When it came down to snagging a QB late, DiNucci was who McCarthy wanted.
The hope was that he would develop into an NFL player. No one imagined it would need to be that quick. Cignetti texted with DiNucci this week to see how it was going and the response was "really well."
JMU has an intense fanbase, and Cignetti compares it to Clemson or Alabama of FBS. He knows everyone associated with the school and the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, will be watching.
"If there wasn't COVID," Cignetti said, "we could put the Cowboys game on the Jumbotron and pack thousands of people in this stadium to watch this game."