MONDAY, AUGUST 16, 2004
Taking the Next Step
Aug. 16, 2004
As JU enters its seventh season of football, including its fourth as a member of the Pioneer Football League, head coach Steve Gilbert has rebuilt the Dolphin program back into a PFL Championship contender. Last year, JU was just one play from winning its second PFL South title in three years. All three of the Dolphins' conference losses came down to the final play, while JU defeated eventual PFL champion Valparaiso in thrilling fashion, 34-27. Being so close, yet seeing the opportunity slip away has fueled the Dolphins' fire. "The players' focus in the offseason has been as intense as any in my 25-year coaching career," said Gilbert, who has had the Dolphins nationally ranked for 31 of the last 37 weeks. "In the back of their minds, they know we could have won the championship." JU experienced record numbers for the summer workout program on campus, which followed one of the Dolphins' most spirited and productive springs. Tough Road Ahead
As JU enters its seventh season of football, including its fourth as a member of the Pioneer Football League, head coach Steve Gilbert has rebuilt the Dolphin program back into a PFL Championship contender. Last year, JU was just one play from winning its second PFL South title in three years. All three of the Dolphins' conference losses came down to the final play, while JU defeated eventual PFL champion Valparaiso in thrilling fashion, 34-27. Being so close, yet seeing the opportunity slip away has fueled the Dolphins' fire.
"The players' focus in the offseason has been as intense as any in my 25-year coaching career," said Gilbert, who has had the Dolphins nationally ranked for 31 of the last 37 weeks. "In the back of their minds, they know we could have won the championship."
JU experienced record numbers for the summer workout program on campus, which followed one of the Dolphins' most spirited and productive springs.
Tough Road Ahead
The Dolphins' non-conference schedule continues to be one of the toughest among the Division I-AA non-scholarship ranks, with games against six scholarship opponents. Included in the mix are three Division I-AA teams and Florida International, which is in transition to Division I-A status. Last year, JU went 3-3 vs. scholarship programs, including wins over Wingate and Coastal Carolina.
With the graduation of All-American Emmett Hunter, who rushed for a school-record 1,467 yards last season and became the Dolphins' all-time leading rusher, JU will rely on strength in numbers at running back in 2004. Junior Chad Davis (5-6, 175) and sophomores Jerry Brant (5-6, 185) and Jason Laurence (5-8, 190) combined for just 328 yards and one touchdown last season due to Hunter's school-record 304 carries. Davis continues to be one of the top all-around threats in the PFL, rushing for 201 yards, while catching 13 passes for 69 yards in nine games last season. Brant is cut from the same mold as Davis and will benefit from an increase in opportunities. He rushed for just 24 yards on five carries in nine games last season, but emerged as the Dolphins' most explosive running back during spring practice. Laurence was a pleasant surprise by playing in 10 games as a true freshman. He ended the season with 103 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, while also catching nine passes for 82 yards out of the backfield. The key for the JU offense will be finding opportunities for all three players on the field. For the first time in four years, the Dolphins enter the season with a solid corp of returning fullbacks. Leading the way is junior starter Steven Battle (5-11, 225), who started 9-of-11 games last season and helped pave the way for Hunter's record-breaking season. Backups Kurt Schleicher (5-9, 220) and Stephen Garris (6-1, 235) both saw signficant action and should give the Dolphins their best depth ever at the position.
The Dolphins will miss the steady play of shifty wideout Travis Lewis and possession receiver Richard Gayle, who combined for 56 receptions, 1,132 yards and 10 touchdowns, but there are plenty of candidates for the emergence of JU's next impact receiver. Junior Julio Santiago (5-8, 160) enjoyed a breakout sophomore season in which he led the team with 30 receptions for 383 yards and three scores, while junior Eldin Ferguson (6-2, 220) emerged as the Dolphins' top possession receiver after grabbing 15 balls for 178 yards and three touchdowns last year. Look for senior Cliff Collins (6-4, 197) and junior transfer Eddie Meyer (5-10, 180), who had a strong spring, to figure into the equation. In addition, converted quarterback Daniel Rice(5-10, 175) will give the Dolphins a different dimension in the slot, while redshirt freshman William Angstadt (6-3, 192) emerged as a potential threat during spring practice.
Every year, a standout player has emerged at the tight end position. With the graduation of Jimmy Willman (18 rec., 287 yds., 3 TD), fifth-year senior Justin Knowles (6-2, 240) is primed for a breakout season. Knowles, who has played in 31 games at JU after appearing in all 11 games last season, caught a pair of passes for 18 yards and a touchdown as Willman's back-up. He is an excellent run blocker and Gilbert calls him the best leader in the seven-year history of the program. Redshirt sophomore Anthony Campanella (6-1, 212) is healthy again after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the opener last year. Also look for redshirt freshman Mac Grossman (6-4, 230) to see some playing time in his first season on the field.
After switching to the no-huddle offense last year, the Dolphin O-Line developed an unwavering confidence and what Gilbert calls "nasty attiitude with a swagger". While opponents wilted in the fourth quarter of the Florida heat, the well-conditioned Dolphins thrived in the up-tempo style which helped yield three come-from-behind wins in the final stanza. JU returns five linemen who played on a consistent basis last season, including starters Ed Templeton (6-6, 303), Josue Sanchez (6-2, 270) and Barry Johnson (6-1, 295). Templeton returns for a fifth year at right tackle after a breakout junior season. Sophomore Pat Rich (6-3, 275) will become the starter at left tackle after playing in all 11 games as a true freshman. Sanchez enjoyed a breakout sophomore season at left guard in which he earned First-Team All-PFL honors, while Johnson started 10-of-11 games at right guard during his junior campaign. Sophomores Brett Barry (6-2, 278) and Pat Monteau (6-0, 275) will battle for the starting center spot after playing as reserves last season.The Dolphins will continue to platoon players on the line, so look for redshirt freshmen Rusty Stiglitz (6-5, 290) and David Locander (6-4, 310) to see plenty of playing time after solid spring workouts.
Depth will once again be the strength of the defensive line as the Dolphins features a rotation, which includes as many as 10 players. JU is traditionally undersized, but will use its quickness and mobility to apply pressure in multiple ways. Junior Ben Jones (6-0, 245) return on the inside for the Dolphins. Jones started all 11 contests at nose guard as a sophomore and led the squad with six quarterback hurries. Senior Jason Bense (6-3, 255) returns for his third season at defensive end after a breakout junior campaign. Despite constant double teams, he ended up with 26 tackles and 4.0 sacks. Junior Peyton Keeling (6-1, 235) returns at the other end after a career-best 20 stops, including 4.5 behind the line of scrimmage last year. Sophomore Ryan Young (6-0, 260) will back up Jones at nose guard after playing in 10 games as a true freshman, while redshirt freshmen Brian Pulaski (6-2, 225) and Kiel Pierce (6-1, 240) will also need to make an immediate impact.
The secondary is a question mark with the graduation of seniors Charlton Williams and Emile Duvernois, who combined to play in 70 games for the Dolphins. Redshirt junior Drew Stafford (6-2, 210) is back at free safety after missing all of the last season with a knee injury. Also look for junior transfer Bernard Opaku (6-1, 200) to provide the Dolphins with immediate help. Converted quarterback Matthew Kampfe (6-3, 195), who played the majority of the snaps last year, was a pleasant surprise at strong safety, finishing third on the team with 45 tackles. Converted linebacker Omar Platt (6-0, 210) should provide some quality depth at strong safety. Another surprise for JU last year was the play of the young cornerback tandem of Bryan Flowers (5-20, 180) and Leighton Henderson (5-10, 175). Flowers, who started the final seven games of the season, earned First-Team All-PFL honors as a true freshman after making 38 tackles and breaking up a team-high seven passes. Henderson had 23 stops and four breakups as a sophomore and is ready to move into a starting role. Sophomore Sean Casey (5-9, 180) played in all 11 games as a true freshman in the secondary, while junior transfer Sterling Randolph (5-8, 180) should provide instant depth.
Special teams have always been a strength for the Dolphins and this season should prove no different. Sophomore punter Ryan Long earned All-America honors as a true freshman after leading the PFL and ranking 21st nationally with a 40.8 yard-per-punt average. Long shared the kicking duties with defensive end Jason Bense, who handled the JU kickoffs. Bense was 4-for-4 in field goal attempts, including a school-record 52-yarder. The Dolphins also welcome junior transfer Ryan Feely from UCF, the younger brother of Atlanta Falcons kicker Jay Feely. Chad Davis will return kickoffs for the third straight season after earning Honorable Mention All-PFL honors in 2003 with a school-record 23.2 yard-per-return average. Junior Julio Santiago is also back as JU's primary punt returner after ranking fifth in the PFL with 5.5 yards per return a year ago.