Football Prepares For Inaugural Season In Pioneer Football League

Aug. 10, 2001

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - When Steve Gilbert accepted the job as Jacksonville University's first football coach in February of 1997, after leading Ursinus College to its best season in school history and earning NCAA Division III Coach-of-the-Year honors, he had a vision of building something from scratch. In his own words, Gilbert said "It would be great to take a program, where they didn't have a mouthpiece, a chin guard or a field, put it all together and put our name on it - to take it to whatever level we can possibly take it."

True to his own words, Gilbert has built the Dolphin football program from scratch. Now entering its fourth season of competition, JU will begin play in the Pioneer Football League, a newly-expanded conference of nine non-scholarship football programs that stretches from coast to coast. Now instead of practicing in the rough terrain of "The Valley" with nothing but a distant game on their mind, the Dolphins will pursue their first conference championship in the friendly confines of D.B. Milne Field.

"This is the year we have been building toward since the inception of the program in the spring of 1997," says Gilbert. "We told our first recruiting class that we were going to build a program with a strong foundation. Hopefully, this is the year they will reap the benefits of all of their hard work and dedication to the team."

With 24 seniors, most of whom have been on the roster since stepping on campus in the fall of 1998, JU has the experience to go along with the talent to take the next step in the building process.

Offensively, the Dolphins return nine starters, including a slew of talented, big-play receivers, a pair of jet-fast running backs and two experienced quarterbacks. The question will be the offensive line, which was ravaged by injuries last year forcing three freshman to start a combined 19 games. With the addition of new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Stults, JU gains more than 20 years of experience and a polished teacher who can continue to mold the young Dolphin line.

"We are as deep as anyone on our schedule at wide receiver and running back," says Gilbert. "We have two quarterbacks with a ton of experience who understand our offense. The key is going to be keeping the offensive line healthy, which unfortunately didn't happen last season."

Defensively, JU returns all 11 starters from a squad that ranked 13th in the country last season with 32 turnovers gained and prospered in defensive coordinator Shap Boyd's new speed-oriented attack. The Dolphins have plenty of experience returning with no underclassmen among the front seven, while the secondary is loaded with young, but seasoned talent. The bottom line remains the same - getting 11 bodies to the football.

"We are a more mature defensive unit this season now that we have had a season to grow together," says Boyd, who was promoted to assistant head coach following the 2000 season. "That should help us deal with adversity in a more consistent manner. We should also be a much faster defensive squad than we were last season. Our players have put in more time together this summer as a unit than any team I've ever coached."

Special teams could be the difference this season for the Dolphins with the addition of two pure place kickers and the return of one of the nation's top punt returners. Last season, JU ranked ninth in the country with 13.39 yards per punt return, while averaging more than 20 yards a return on kickoffs. The Dolphins also blocked six kicks, including two blocked punts for a touchdown.

"Our special teams continue to improve as the program develops because of the quality depth," says Gilbert. "We are at the point where we can get our starters off special teams and let the reserves make it happen."

Despite beginning play in the Pioneer Football League, the Dolphins will again play four scholarship programs (Lenoir-Ryhyne, Charleston Southern, Virginia-Wise and Florida Atlantic), in addition to a four-game league schedule that includes Davidson, which went 10-0 last season, Morehead St., Austin Peay and perennial power Drake. JU will also face Florida Atlantic at Pro Player Stadium as the Owls begin their first season of football under the direction of legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger. Add in Western Maryland, which is one of the top teams in Division III having gone 41-5 with four playoff appearances in the last four years, and the 2001 schedule could be the toughest yet for the young JU program.

"With 24 seniors on the roster, this is the season we can break through and put together our first winning season," says Gilbert. "But in order to do that, we need to beat a scholarship program. We have competed well against non-scholarship programs, but we need to take that next step."

The Dolphin offense should be in good hands this season with the return of three-year starter Gary Cooper and senior Scott Brickley. Cooper has been JU's signal caller since the program began in 1997, but missed five games last season due to injury allowing the gritty Brickley to gain valuable experience and put up record-setting numbers.

"You need two quarterbacks to compete at this level and we are fortunate to have two with a great deal of experience," says Gilbert. "Gary knows our offense as well as anyone and can really create havoc when he is out in open space. "Scott did a terrific job filling in when Gary was injured. He has excellent arm strength and proved he can get the job done when called upon."

Despite missing more than half of the 2000 season with a shoulder injury, Cooper threw for 686 yards and five touchdowns. Brickley, meanwhile, threw for 1,294 yards and four touchdowns, averaging more than 161 yards passing a game. He also attempted a school-record 241 passes in only eight games, tossing up more than 30 attempts per outing.

Senior Josh Hoekstra had a good spring after transferring from Trinity (Ill.) University, where he played both quarterback and defensive back. Despite being new to the program, he has become one of the team's best leaders, and has good arm strength and mobility.

Also look for sophomore Kyle Hicks to battle for the No. 3 spot. Hicks is a converted wide receiver who played quarterback in high school before moving to wide receiver as a freshman. The Jacksonville native passed for more than 2,000 yards at Episcopal High School en route to Eagle Gridiron Player-of-the-Year honors following his final prep season.

The Dolphin backfield has the potential to be the team's strength this season if the offensive line can continue to develop and stay healthy. Seniors Jon Underhill and Brent Alexander return having been with the program since its inception in 1997. Last season, the lightening-fast duo combined for nearly 700 yards rushing, while catching 34 passes out of the backfield for 195 yards. For the second consecutive year, they were both part of the JU track and field team, where together they repeated as TAAC Champions in the 4x100-meter relay.

"We need to find different ways to get Underhill and Alexander the ball out of the backfield," says Gilbert. "They need to be out in space with running room because they both have blazing speed and big-play capability."

The biggest addition this season could be sophomore Emmet Akins, a 6-foot-1, 198-pound transfer from Kentucky Wesleyan. Akins is a hard-nosed, physical runner who can carry the ball 25-30 times a game and raise the intensity of the entire running game. He punished the first-team defense last season as a member of the scout team, and with Underhill and Alexander running track, got most of the repetitions during spring practice.

JU can match up with anyone on its schedule at wide receiver as the Dolphins are loaded with quality pass catchers. The challenge is finding enough passes to keep all of them happy. "Not only do we have quality wide receivers, but it is our deepest position on the team," says Gilbert. "We have a lot kids who can play and we have the challenge of trying to get them all involved."

Senior All-American Brett Palmi has been the mainstay in the Dolphin lineup since the program began. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound wideout has played in all 29 games of the program's history and has led the team in receiving for two straight seasons. Last year, he caught 39 passes for 609 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 15.6 yards per catch and 55.4 yards per game. He is explosive and can break a play at any time, as evident by his four receptions for 30 yards or more in 2000, including a school-record 72-yard touchdown catch and a 54-yard scoring grab.

Junior Jon Turner developed into a solid possession receiver for JU last season, finishing second on the team with 32 receptions for 453 yards. He averaged 14.2 yards per catch, and at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, proved his athleticism by blocking two kicks on special teams. Senior D.J. Walton came on toward the end of the year, finishing with 22 catches for 187 yards. He has gained more confidence as he has matured, and has all of the tools - size, toughness, hands, speed and blocking ability - to have a breakout season.

Also look for sophomore Travis Lewis to be involved in the offense. Lewis played in all 11 games as a true freshman, and despite his lack of size (5-7, 160), caught 10 passes for 102 yards. At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, converted quarterback Alex Jackson had a good spring catching the ball, while senior Jared Moses has bounced back from an early-season hand injury last year and should see significant playing time again in 2001.

The tight end position will be different with the loss of Scott Kennedy, but the Dolphins are not as concerned about throwing to the tight ends this season as they were in 2000. With so much quality and depth at wide receiver, as well as the speed coming out of the backfield, the key for the tight ends in 2001 will be blocking.

"We will throw to them some, but we have to satisfy our wide receivers and running backs first," says Gilbert. "We need them to provide additional blocking in order to create some time for the quarterbacks and space for the running backs."

Junior Andrew Bianchi will take over the starting role having played in all 11 games as a sophomore. Although he has caught 10 passes over the last two seasons, his strength is blocking and providing toughness on the line of scrimmage. Joining Bianchi on the line will be sophomore Harley Farmer, who played in all 11 games as a true freshman. Farmer had a great spring and has the size and toughness to really make a difference this year.

Also look for sophomore James Willman to see playing time at tight end after playing in all 11 games as a freshman.

Perhaps the biggest unknown of this year's team is the offensive line. Last year, the Dolphins entered the season with four veteran starters, and after getting ravaged by injuries, the lack of quality depth hurt the offensive attack. This season, JU will be more balanced, but also much younger across the line as three true freshmen were forced to play the majority of the 2000 season.

"We have had more injuries at offensive line than any other position," says Gilbert. "It's unfortunate because the offensive line is the key our success. If we can stay healthy and develop this season, we can put up some big numbers with the skill players we have."

Senior Kevin Kelley returns at center after starting all 20 games over the last two seasons. Kelley has been one of the constants for JU and will again anchor the offensive line. He is an intelligent player who makes a lot of the calls on the field and serves as the leader of the line. Joining Kelley on the line at guard is senior Buck Walz, who has been with the Dolphins since the program was started in 1997. Walz has been injury prone, missing five games last year with a knee injury, but as the emotional leader, his presence on the field is vital to the Dolphins' success.

Sophomore Frank Santora will join Walz at the other guard spot after playing in nine games, including seven starts, as a true freshman. He and fellow sophomore Kevin Womble, who played in all 11 games as a true freshman, should be much further along this season after gaining valuable game experience a year ago. Junior Donald Mattis returns at tackle and should be much improved after switching from the defensive line prior to the 2000 season. Mattis battled a leg injury last year, but still managed to play in seven games at left tackle.

Sophomores Chris Mills and Matt Meyer will battle for the other tackle position. Meyer has gotten stronger since last season and has good feet for a 6-foot-5, 322-pounder. Mills, meanwhile, has the experience of playing in eight games during his rookie campaign.

"Preseason camp should be interesting because, with very few exceptions, all jobs are open," says Gilbert. "We are going to see who can come in, not make mental mistakes and prove they are ready to play right away."

With all four starters returning and four back-ups who logged significant playing time last year, the defensive line is the strongest and most experienced area of the Dolphin defense. Last season, under Boyd's new philosophy of making people go east and west, the defensive line did an excellent job of penetrating up the field, which led to record-setting numbers by the Dolphins' linebackers and secondary.

Once again leading the charge for JU is senior defensive tackle Justin Yowell, who thrived inside in 2000 after moving from defensive end. Despite his statistical numbers going down, Yowell was more effective inside, causing opponents to redirect their offense by shoring up the strong side and enabling the defense to focus on the weak side.

"He is as athletic as any defensive lineman I have been around," says Boyd. "He has the ability on any given play to not be blocked. Justin can totally dominate a game from the tackle position."

Yowell racked up 62 tackles, including a team-high 18 for loss (-87 yards), while again leading the team with eight sacks (-67 yards) and nine quarterback hurries last year. He also recovered two fumbles, forced a fumble and broke up three passes.

Senior Scott Wilson will move to the strong side and play defensive end alongside Yowell. Wilson had 30 tackles last year on the weak side, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of 54 yards. He also tallied 6.5 sacks (-44 yards), while forcing and recovering a fumble. Senior Matt Arcarola returns at noseguard, where he started all 11 games as a junior and finished fifth on the team with 49 tackles.

Also on the weak side will be junior Will Weatherford, who has started all 20 games over the past two seasons at defensive end. Weatherford had 35 tackles as a sophomore, including eight behind the line of scrimmage (-19 yards), and five quarterback hurries. Seniors Courtney Phelps, Roger McIntosh and Jason Anderson, along with sophomore Derek Roberts, should help provide experienced depth on the line. Phelps played in all 11 games last season, while McIntosh will move back to his natural position of defensive end, which will allow him to better use his athleticism. He had a great spring and will battle Weatherford for the starting nod. Anderson came on toward the end of spring after missing all of last year with a knee injury, while Roberts is also recovering from a late-season injury.

The linebackers have prospered more than any other position from the Dolphins' new defensive philosophy. Not only have they matured greatly, but now they are all runners and hitters. They are also faster, lighter and more mobile than a year ago.

"We are not worried about being pushed around," says Boyd. "We can get more bodies in the way if we have to. I just want them to be able to run to the football and make plays."

Perhaps the player who thrived the most last season is All-American Tommy Swindell. The senior middle linebacker had a school-record 103 tackles, including 73 solo stops and 12 tackles for loss (-28 yards), while leading the nation with nine fumbles gained.

"Tommy is the quarterback of the defense," says Boyd. "He knows what I want and is able to make a lot of calls on his own on the field based on what he sees and what we discussed during the week. He might not be as athletic as some middle linebackers, but he runs the show for us and provides maximum effort. Our defense is going to be as good as he is."

Also returning are starters Pete Satur on the strong side and Daniel Irby on the weak side. Satur was slowed by injuries, but still managed to finish seventh on the team last season with 44 tackles, 2.5 sacks (-10 yards) and an interception. He has lost weight since last year and has improved his flexibility and mobility, which should allow him to be on the field more as a senior. Irby is a model of consistency who always seems to be around the football. He was third on the team in 2000 with 60 tackles, including 10 for loss (-25 yards), while recording eight quarterback hurries and breaking up four passes.

Lack of depth at linebacker could be a concern for the Dolphins with only two returning players that have game experience. Junior Jeff Mama played in 10 games last season in the middle, registering 19 tackles and forcing two fumbles, while junior James Glenn saw action in nine contests. After that, there will be a host of untested players battling for playing time.

What started out as a question mark for the Dolphins in 2000, has turned into an exclamation point for JU this year with a young, athletic and experienced secondary. There are five players returning on the corner who saw significant playing time in 2000, while senior free safety Tyrone Wright returns after a breakout junior season, and should help anchor the defensive backfield.

Leading the way at corner are juniors Linj Shell and Boshawn Mack. They both have height and size to excel against the bigger receivers, and the speed to cover the smaller, faster wideouts. Shell finished last season with 28 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown, but his most telling statistic is his team-leading 17 passes defensed.

Mack is a speedster who played in nine games as a sophomore, registering 16 tackles, while breaking up five passes and recovering a pair of fumbles. Senior Russell Cheatham played in all 11 games as a junior and did an excellent job as the nickel back, recording 32 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Cheatham also broke up 12 passes and recovered two fumbles. Junior Josh Katsur and sophomore Charlton Williams provide experienced depth for the Dolphins. Katsur missed the bulk of the 2000 season after injuring his foot in the second game, but played in seven contests as a true freshman in 1999. Williams played in seven games last year as a freshman and will be more of a factor once he improves his consistency.

Wright is the leader in the secondary and showed signs of greatness during his junior campaign finishing fourth on the team with 58 tackles, including 50 solo stops. He also became the school's all-time leader with eight career interceptions after picking off a team-best four passes, while breaking up another 10 pass attempts.

"Tyrone has great natural ability," says Boyd. "He has the ability to take over a game and dominate it. He improved dramatically last year as far as being in the right position to make plays. If he can make that same kind of improvement this year, he will be a big-time playmaker for us."

Junior Jeremy Kearson has been a steady player for the Dolphins at strong safety, despite being better suited for the free safety position. He is always in the right spot to make plays, as evident by his 54 tackles and six passes defensed last season when he started all 11 games. Sophomore Emile Duvernois gained a lot of experience as a freshman playing in eight contests, and benefited from getting all of the repetitions in the spring when Wright was competing for the Dolphin track team. Duvernois will provide backup at both safety positions.

Special teams was a strength last year and could be even more of a factor in 2001. The addition of transfer place kickers Chris Brown and Chris Schmidt give the Dolphins a legitimate kicking game and should shore up an otherwise solid special teams unit. Brown is a transfer from Ole Miss, where despite not seeing any game action in two years, has proven he is a capable kicker. He hit 19-of-25 field goal attempts during his high school career, including a 52-yarder as a sophomore, which was the best in the state of Mississippi. Schmidt originally signed to play at Georgia and should provide good competition for Brown.

Junior Brett Keener will be able to concentrate strictly on punting after pulling double duty last season as the Dolphins punter and kicker. Keener averaged 37.4 yards per kick in 2000, including four punts for 50 yards or more and nine boots inside the 20-yard line. The JU return game was one of the best in the country last year with Brett Palmi averaging 14.0 yards per punt return and Russell Cheatham averaging more than 20 yards per kickoff return. Add in Linj Shell and Travis Lewis, who both averaged more than 17 yards a return, and sprint champions Jon Underhill and Boshawn Mack, and the Dolphins have one of the most lethal return games in the nation.