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Meet Indiana football’s 9 James Madison transfers through Curt Cignetti’s eyes

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Indiana football head coach Curt Cignetti has officially added nine players from his former program, James Madison University, to his first roster in Bloomington. 

On Christmas eve, the Hoosiers announced the signings of offensive linemen Nick Kidwell and Tyler Stephens, tight end Zach Horton, running back Kaelon Black, defensive lineman James Carpenter and linebackers Aiden Fisher and Jailin Walker. 

The moves came just one day after James Madison’s 31-21 loss to Air Force in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, ending the Dukes’ season at 11-2. 

Cignetti, who left his perch as James Madison’s head coach for the same role at Indiana on Nov. 30, previously announced he’s bringing seven assistant coaches, five recruits and a pair of transfers in defensive end Mikail Kamara and running back Ty Son Lawton with him from Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

Here’s a look at Indiana’s nine James Madison converts. 

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Kidwell, a 6-foot-5, 316-pound right tackle, earned second-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors in 2022 and was a preseason first-team selection this year but missed the final eight games with an injury. 

At Sun Belt media days this past summer, Kidwell was one of James Madison’s two representatives, an honor that often goes to teams’ best players and leaders. 

“Nick really had emerged as the leader of the team,” Cignetti said Sept. 27. “He's a good player.” 

Joining him on the offensive line is Stephens, who stands at 6-foot-5, 306 pounds, and started all 13 games at left tackle this year, collecting second-team All-Sun Belt accolades. He started all 11 games last season, with nine coming at left guard and two at right tackle. 

Following Kidwell’s season-ending injury, Stephens stepped up to fill the leadership void. 

“You can see him really growing into the role, sort of a leadership role on that line a little bit with Nick gone,” Cignetti said Nov. 1. “He’s been playing with a tenacious edge which is great to see.” 

Indiana returns only one starter – left tackle Carter Smith – on its offensive line, prompting the need for Cignetti to bring in proven commodities up front. 

Elsewhere on the offense, Horton was named first-team All-Sun Belt this season after catching 27 passes for 275 yards and six touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 249-pound Horton also earned Group of 5 third-team All-American honors, per HERO Sports. 

For his career, Horton’s hauled in 40 passes for 434 yards and eight scores. He has one year of eligibility remaining and brings a three-down skill set with the ability to impact games as a blocker, as well. 

“Zach Horton has been as consistent, playing at a high level, play in play out, game in game out, as anybody on this football team,” Cignetti said Sept. 30. 

Black, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound runner, saw 142 carries for 637 yards and a touchdown while adding 27 receptions for 254 yards and four more scores. 

The Virginia Beach, Va., native battled adversity early in his career, missing a month in his freshman season with a heart condition before tearing his ACL as a sophomore. 

“Kaelon’s a guy we were very high on when he first came in here,” Cignetti said Aug. 29, 2022. “He’s got a lot of burst and acceleration. Tough guy.” 

Black was the Dukes’ leading rusher, but Lawton wasn’t far behind, compiling 568 yards and five touchdowns on the ground and 174 yards and a touchdown through the air. 

Lawton, a seventh-year senior poised for his final collegiate campaign, spent his first five seasons at Stony Brook University and led the Coastal Athletic Association with 1,088 rushing yards in 2021. 

He entered 2022 as the CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year but suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the season opener and transferred to James Madison in the offseason. 

Cignetti’s words on Lawton leading into the 2023 season are applicable once more. 

“I think he’s a guy that can really help us,” Cignetti said Sept. 7. “He showed his running ability when he was in there. He’s a guy that can definitely help our football team be successful.” 

Defensively, the 6-foot-2, 282-pound Carpenter was a second-team All-Sun Belt selection after recording 53 tackles, nine tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, four sacks and an interception. 

Carpenter arrived at James Madison as a walk-on and, like Horton, left as a Group of 5 third-team All-American while strongly impacting the Dukes’ locker room. 

“The best way to lead is through your actions and everything he does he does full speed, with great intensity and toughness,” Cignetti said in July. “He's a good role model for those younger guys and the other guys around them.” 

Kamara, a 6-foot-1, 265-pound edge defender, joined Carpenter as a second-team All-Sun Belt honoree after notching 51 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. 

The Ashburn, Va., native proved difficult to block – just ask one of his former teammates at James Madison, tight end Drew Painter. 

“He’s a big, twitchy guy,” Painter said in Aug. 2022. “He’s fast. He gets off the ball. He’ll give you a good punch off and when you got to get him down, he’s hard to get down. He just plays hard and flies around.” 

Fisher, who led the Dukes with 108 tackles this season, had a productive final outing, logging 17 total tackles against Air Force. For the campaign, he collected seven pass breakups, six tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks en route to third-team All-Sun Belt honors. 

The 6-foot-1, 227-pound Fisher hails from Fredericksburg, Va., and was dubbed by Cignetti via X as the quarterback of James Madison’s defense. 

“He’s a reactive, instinctive player that plays fast, very dependable. Smart player and he’s in the right place,” Cignetti said during spring practice on Apr. 18. “He’s where he’s supposed to be, which is what playing football is all about.” 

His running mate at linebacker was Walker, who stands at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds and finished second on the team in tackles with 61. He added 5.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. 

Walker has been named honorable mention All-Sun Belt each of the past two seasons, and Cignetti said he’ll bring sideline-to-sideline speed to the middle of the Hoosiers’ defense. 

“Jailin is a high-motor guy,” Cignetti said Sept. 7, 2022. “He loves playing football. He tries to do everything he’s coached to do. Great attitude, good special teams player. Very high on him.” 

The Hoosiers have officially announced these additions and more, confirming Dec. 24 that 33 players had been added to the roster. 

Cignetti stressed no tampering was involved with the James Madison recruits – it simply came down to them seeing and liking Bloomington, and at least nine appear to have bought in. 

“I didn't have to sell them,” Cignetti said. “They believe that they're going to win. They think like champions. They believe in the coaches. They believe in the program. They believe they're going to step on foot and make a difference. Guess what? I believe that too.” 

Follow reporters Matt Press (@MattPress23) and Dalton James (@DaltonMJames) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana football offseason. 

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