THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 01, 2007
2007 Football Season Outlook
Nov. 1, 2007
The 10th anniversary of Jacksonville University football features a new head coach in charge of a program returning 20 starters from last year's team in search of one goal - a Pioneer Football League championship.
Kerwin Bell, a former star quarterback at the University of Florida from 1984 through 1988, takes the reigns of the program as the second head coach in school history.
Bell's arrival has dawned a new era in the history of the football program as he brings a championship mentality and a system that helped him build a state power from the ground up at Trinity Catholic High School (Ocala, Fla.).
"We have one goal - to win a Pioneer Football League championship," Bell said. "Every thing that we do is focused on getting us to our goal."
With Bell's arrival, the Dolphins will feature an exciting passing attack and Horton will have some talented weapons at his disposal. The wide receiver position is one of the deepest and most talented positions for JU - headlined by junior Geavon Tribble, seniors Nate Conner and Michael Jenner.
Despite being a former quarterback and a penchant for throwing the ball, Bell's goal is for the offense to have a balanced attack - with the pass setting up the run.
"We're not going to be a one-dimensional offense," Bell said. "We want to be able to pass first and run second. My goal is to have a precision passing game being complemented by a powerful running game."
The defense also features some returning talent - especially in the defensive backfield and at linebacker.
Junior Robson Noel and senior Bryan Flowers look to be the stars at cornerback. Noel earned honorable mention All-America honors last season after being forced into duty and turned into the Dolphins' top shutdown corner. Flowers returns for a fifth season of eligibility after suffering a season-ending injury in the 2006 opener against Gardner-Webb.
The linebacker corps will once again be a strong point for the defense with senior Joey Rumph, freshman Jarvis Williams and sophomore Allen Fennell coming into fall camp as the starters. Fennell finished second on the team in tackles last season and is expected to have a much bigger presence this season.
"Our philosophy is to be physical, disciplined and persistent," said associate head coach and defensive coordinator Ron McCrone. "We have a lot of guys returning, but we're going to enter fall camp with everyone battling for their position. With some of the kids returning and the ones we signed, we're going to be respectable on defense."
Bell's first year as head coach also features a difficult schedule that includes two regional road trips as well as six home games.
"This is a competitive schedule, but we're not going to shy away from any challenges," Bell said. "Having six home games this season is a big boost, but we play our toughest teams away from home. We're going to have to develop a mentality that we can win anywhere for us to be successful this season."
Bell is best known as the quarterback who set all sorts of passing records during his tenure at Florida. In taking over his first collegiate program, he plans on setting records at JU as well.
The offense that Bell will employ is a pass-first offense, but one that Bell wants to be balanced and high scoring.
"We want to be such a balanced team that we can take advantage of whatever the defense gives us," Bell said. "I feel that if we can average 30 points per game, we've given ourselves a chance to win - regardless of what the defense does. If our offense doesn't do that, we're not successful on that side of the ball."
While the starting position is nailed down with senior Chris Horton returning for his final campaign, the battle for the No. 2 and 3 spot will be heated during the fall.
Horton is coming off an impressive junior campaign that saw him throw for 1,899 yards and rush for more than 200. In his first full season as the starter, Horton threw 15 touchdowns - the second highest total in school history.
"Going through the spring, I like our depth at quarterback," Bell said. "In Chris, you've got a veteran leader that knows the system and makes the right decisions to get the ball quickly out of his hand. With him being a senior and having all of his experience, it's a big plus for us." Spring practice saw Horton in limited action as he recovered from offseason surgery, allowing backups Erik Stepleton and Jack Solak to handle a majority of the snaps.
Stepleton had an impressive outing in the Green & White game, throwing for 220 yards and three touchdowns with just one interception. Solak continued to improve as the spring went along, throwing for more than 100 yards in the spring game as he saw action on both teams.
"Erik has a lot of talent," Bell said. "He has the physical ability to play at this level, it's our job now to develop him into a quarterback. Solak did a good job this spring and has a solid work ethic."
Bell also has brought in several freshmen quarterbacks that have the potential for great things as well.
"We have brought in some kids that we feel can develop into really good quarterbacks," Bell said. "We're going to throw a lot at them and give them every opportunity to develop."
A year ago, Jerry Brant more than carried the load in the backfield for JU. The senior rushed for more than 1,100 yards and finished the season as the all-time leading rusher in JU history.
With his graduation, there is a hole in backfield and who will fill that hole is one of the major questions facing the Dolphins entering the season.
Coltrane has more experience, having played in seven games a year ago as he rushed for 59 yards on 23 carries as Brant's backup. Harris had 10 carries for 18 yards during the 2006 campaign as well.
"Running back is a big question mark as we head into camp," Bell said. "I saw some things out of Cecil and Ron this spring, but not consistently. We have two guys coming in that will help us upgrade the position and push these guys to get better. Whichever one that can help us balance our offense will play at that position."
Whereas running back is up in the air, there is a deep talent pool for the Dolphins at wide receiver, giving Horton plenty of weapons to use in the new offense.
The group is headlined by the quartet of sophomore Cameron Abdallah, senior Nate Conner, senior Michael Jenner and junior Geavon Tribble. Tribble and Jenner led the team in receptions with 30 apiece, while Tribble had the most yards (594).
The quartet racked up more than 1,500 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns last year and looks to surpass those marks this season. In the spring game, the group managed 225 yards on 14 receptions with four touchdowns.
While those four are expected to be playmakers, redshirt freshmen Bryan Jackson and Greg Louissaint made strong impressions during the spring and will see time in some of the five-wide sets.
"This is the deepest and most talented position on this team," Bell said. "I believe this group is a more talented than what I had my last two years at Florida. We have five or six guys that are ready to step up and have big years for us."
The front five for the Dolphins is pretty much set, but the depth behind the starters is another big question facing the coaching staff as they enter the fall.
The offensive line returns four starters from last year's unit - missing only All-America selection Pat Rich at left tackle and utility-man Josue Sanchez, who filled in at every position. Senior David Locander returns at left guard, junior Steve Reynolds at center, sophomore Chris Tessitore at right guard and junior Michael Aguilar at right tackle.
Replacing Rich's spot in the trenches is going to require some big shoes to protect the quaterback's blind side. Senior Rusty Stiglitz, who started at right tackle as a sophomore and at center his junior year before an injury ended his season a year ago, looks to step up and replace Rich.
The depth behind the starters is something the coaching staff addressed in recruiting, bringing in a bumper crop of players that will make an impact in the coming years.
"I feel good about the top six on our O-line," Bell said. "We have some experienced starters that are talented. My concern right now is depth and we heavily recruited this position. We need our starters to stay healthy, but we will have the young guys ready to play."
The JU defense returns several talented players that gained valuable experience a year ago.
With a new coaching staff, the philosophy has changed to a much more responsibility-oriented scheme that is aimed at getting the ball back to the offense as quickly as possible.
JU has 11 starters returning on defense, losing only nose guard Ryan Young and defensive back Kyle Fail from last year's squad. As opposed to the young group fielded a year ago, this is a veteran group - possibly featuring five seniors in the starting lineup.
Senior defensive lineman Kiel Pierce is the leader of the group and is expected to help anchor a formidable barrier for opposing offenses.
"We've got a lot of guys returning, but we've got to get them playing with more consistency than we had in the spring," defensive coordinator McCrone said. "We have a lot of question marks and we've got a lot of young guys that we're bringing in that are hungry to play. Who comes to camp ready to go is going to decide who's going to play.
"We want the guys returning to know they better come ready to work, because we're going to push them to get better or there is going to be somebody that will take their position if they aren't prepared. I'm a firm believer that competition makes players better and we're going to have a lot of that when we start in the fall."
The Dolphins front four has some strong points and some question marks, which will make fall camp an important time. Ryan Young is the lone starter not returning from this group.
Returning to anchor the front four is seniors Sean Heverin and Kiel Pierce, with senior Mirco Zanella and sophomore Jude Leconte set to make contributions when called upon. Pierce had 33 tackles with five for a loss, including two quarterback sacks. Heverin was also close with 30 tackles and 4.5 tackles for a loss.
McCrone is expecting some of the newcomers from the recruiting period to make an immediate impact on the front four - adding depth and creating more competition for starting spots.
"I didn't feel good about our line coming out of the spring," McCrone said. "Kiel is the leader of this defense and Jude had a good spring, but we just didn't do as well as I had hoped. I think of lot of how this group does depends on the freshmen coming in right away to push the returning guys for a starting spot."
For the Dolphins, the three linebacker positions are going to be critical for the defense to succeed this season.
Luckily for JU, it is also one of the most talented positions on the roster.
Tentatively starting at linebacker is freshman Jarvis Williams steps in as the "Sam" backer, with sophomore Allen Fennell at the "Mike" position and senior Joey Rumph at the "Will" backer. Fennell was second on the team in tackles last season as a redshirt freshman and is expected to continue his development over the summer.
Joining those in the competition for starting job is senior Quintan Salery and sophomore Chris Cherry - with Cherry missing spring practice due to injuries. Salery saw starting time a year ago and will push for a spot in the lineup this year as well.
"We've got some guys who can do some things at linebacker," McCrone said. "Jarvis had a good spring, Allen was off and on, while Joey was the most consistent of the bunch. We're going to need some immediate help from our freshmen to get depth and to push these guys to get better."
Another position that features talent and depth is the defensive backfield, which matured quickly after being thrown into the fire last season.
Bryan Flowers leads the group at cornerback as he enters his fifth season of eligibility after suffering a season-ending injury in the season opener. Holding the other cornerback position is junior Robson Noel, who earned honorable mention All-America honors after finishing third on the team in tackles last season.
"There is some talent in our defensive backfield," McCrone said. "While they are talented, they were too inconsistent in the spring which raises questions. We threw a lot at them in the spring and they picked it up quickly and improved each practice. This is another position where we have some talented young guys coming in that will battle for playing time."
Sophomore Donovan Curry returns for a second tour of duty as the kicker and punter, but he will face competition for his job starting with the first practice in August.
Curry's competition in the spring came from Jonathan Meyer at kicker. As a freshman, Curry juggled the kicking and punting duties during the season - finishing the year having hit 6-of-11 field goal attempts and 24-of-26 extra points. He also averaged 36.2 yards on 11 punts.
"We're going to have an open competition between Donovan, Jonathan and any of the freshmen we're bringing in," Bell said. "I've been spoiled with kickers that make extra points every time and I want a high percentage of made field goals and extra points."
While the kicking job has an incumbent battling for his job, the punting position is wide open with the departure of Joe Recktenwald.
"We didn't have a punter this spring and Donovan did a good job filling in for us," Bell said. "I want our punter to be another weapon - someone that can change field position. Whoever the best guy is in the fall is going to be on the team."
SCHEDULE & CONFERENCE PREVIEW
The Dolphins' schedule features six home games, two tough contests against regional Division I Championship Subdivision teams and three Pioneer Football League flight trips - including a battle against two-time defending champion San Diego.
"We face a very tough schedule, but it is one that I feel like we can compete every week," Bell said. "In working with Alan (JU Director of Athletics Alan Verlander) on the schedule, we want to develop a schedule that gives us an opportunity to compete every week to build this program into something the entire city of Jacksonville can take pride in."
San Diego returns as the preseason pick to win the league despite the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh to Stanford. Perennial power Drake is also expected to compete for the league title as well.
"Watching the films of last season's games, I feel you see good football teams and that we can compete with the top teams because of our athletic ability," Bell said. "We face San Diego and Drake in back-to-back weeks this year. Those two games will be critical for us because those two programs know how to win conference championships and that is our goal as well."
While the sheer number of starters returning is an amazing opportunity for a first-year head coach, Bell still has some question marks and holes to fill - but that is the fun part.
The commitment to seeing the JU football program take off has never been higher. Plans are underway for a new stadium on campus. Recruiting took off this past spring as Bell and his coaching staff put together one of the strongest and deepest classes in JU history.
"I took this job because of the commitment and vision of Alan Verlander and Dr. Romesburg (JU President)," Bell said. "We have a unique opportunity to build something very special here at JU and I look forward to the challenges of building this program."
With the commitment level from the administration and Bell's direction on the field, the Dolphins are set for a very interesting 2007 campaign.