Many people would never guess that James Madison starting quarterback Justin Thorpe has fallen in love with international soccer.

He's never played on a team - not even on the youth level - yet soccer is a passion and he often watches games on TV and plays soccer video games.

You might say Thorpe was red carded last season and that JMU played a man down without its leader. He served a five-game school suspension for an alleged failed drug test and the Dukes spiraled without him, as their 3-1 start dropped to a 5-4 record by the time he returned to the lineup.

With Thorpe back, JMU won its final two regular-season games to slip into the FCS playoffs. He then was a standout in a first-round win at Eastern Kentucky and led the Dukes into the second round at North Dakota State, where he scored on a trick 35-yard pass midway through the fourth quarter to pull them within five points only to have the eventual national champion Bison pull away for the victory.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Thorpe, from Richmond, Va., took responsibility for his suspension and realized how much the Dukes needed him in his absence from the lineup. The 2009 CAA Football offensive rookie of the year, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2010 opener, believes he is viewed by teammates as a leader, and he feels like one again.

As JMU goes through spring practice, Thorpe, who will be a redshirt senior this season, believes he will help the Dukes contend for the conference title.

In Five-a-Side - In the FCS Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Thorpe discusses last season and how he's moved forward into this season.

Let's kick off:

TSN: In what ways can you improve as a quarterback this year?

JT: This offseason, I'm working on my passing. I just want to be able to deliver the ball anywhere on the field, that it will be accurate and on-time. That's what I'm working on, my drops and pretty much reading coverages and things to help along with my passing game.

TSN: Obviously, you have been in and out of the lineup. Coach (Mickey) Matthews has been openly critical of some of the quarterback play in recent seasons. In what ways are you challenged by that?

JT: Well, you know it's always a challenge when the quarterback play is questioned. But Coach Matthews brought me here to be a great quarterback and it's my obligation to do that. He has the right to call on how somebody's playing and I can respect that.

TSN: Justin, how did your suspension change both you and the team last season?

JT: Well, it changed me. It showed me I had to mature and I had a lot of guys looking up to me. That's the hardest thing about being a college athlete is realizing that you're an upperclassman and a leader and somebody who guys look up to. So you have to set an example at all times. I learned that through that experience. Pretty much to the team, the team realizes how important I was, so the guys helped me stay on a straight path.

TSN: Do you feel you made any poor choices in getting suspended?

JT: Yeah, of course. Any time you get suspended you made a bad choice somewhere down the line. But it's all of our jobs to just try to be the best person that we can possibly be, even outside of football. On that part, that all falls on me.

TSN: What are some indications that this year's team will challenge for a conference title and perhaps even beyond?

JT: Like I said, we have a lot of young guys. The funny thing about it is all the young guys have played. Now sophomores and juniors, it's really time to step up. I can look in the guys' eyes and see that we want to win big this year.