Football Ready To Build On First Two Seasons

As Jacksonville University enters its third season of football, there is one thing for certain - progress is being made. The Dolphins are getting bigger, faster and stronger, while the schedule is getting tougher and the expectations are getting higher.

"We are much further along this year as far as maturity goes," says head coach Steve Gilbert, who begins his third season at JU. "Not only offensively and defensively, but especially in our strength and conditioning program. The weight room factor should be a big difference for us this year."

JU played its first two seasons primarily with freshmen and sophomores, against established programs with foundations of juniors and seniors. Now the Dolphins are much further along in the training process and the strength differential will be less noticeable.

"We need to take steps toward a winning season," says Gilbert, who has posted a 7-11 record during JU's first two seasons. "The results have to show on the field. We played a lot of close games last year - including three overtime games - and we need to put ourselves in position to win those games before we get to overtime."

With nine starters returning on offense, including a host of talented, big-play receivers, three breakaway running backs and a two-year starter at quarterback, the Dolphins look to put up offensive numbers similar to 1998, when they ranked 28th in the nation in scoring offense with 30.1 points per game. The key will be the offensive line, which is strong on the starting front, but lacks proven depth. JU also has to do a better job in the red zone where it converted only 18 of 31 (.580) opportunities in 1999, including 15 touchdowns.

"We need to find ways to put the ball in the end zone," says Gilbert. "We want to play possession football, move the chains and then put the ball in the hands of our playmakers who can break away at any time."

Defensively, the Dolphins will show a new look under first-year defensive coordinator Shap Boyd, but with the same swarm of defensive talent that helped JU rank 12th in the nation last year in turnover ratio (+1) with 31 takeaways. Boyd intends to employ a defense based on speed, with more people at the point of attack and a more up-the-field approach. He will have an All-American defensive lineman leading the charge and a trio of blue-collar linebackers to back him up.

"We want to be more aggressive up front and put the offense at a disadvantage," says Boyd, who is in his second year at JU. "The defensive line will be expected to get up the field and make plays, which will put more pressure on the linebackers to respond."

The biggest difference for JU this season could be the schedule, which features a full 11-game slate including four scholarship opponents: Lenoir-Rhyne, Tusculum, Virginia-Wise and Charleston Southern. The Dolphins will also have to play a November road game in Des Moines, Iowa, against Drake, which has been one of the top home teams in Divsion I-AA with a 34-5-1 home record since 1992. In addition to six home games, JU will also play Fairfield, which went 9-2 last season, at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando in the school's first-ever night game.

"It's time to raise the bar," says Gilbert, who was the 1996 NCAA Division III Coach of the Year while at Ursinus. "Our schedule is starting to reflect the direction we want to go with the program. We want to be one of the best teams in the country at our level of competition. We feel we can compete with anybody on our schedule, but every week is going to be a battle."

The Offense

Formation:  Multiple One-Back
Lettermen Returning:  16
Starters Returning:  9
Starters Lost:  2
Strengths:  Wide Receivers, depth at running back, talent at skill positions.
Concerns:  Experience and depth at offensive line.
    Gary Cooper, QB
    Jon Underhill, RB
    Scott Kennedy, TE
    Brett Palmi, WR
    Matt Ellis, QB
    Harley Farmer, TE
    Teree Smith, WR
The Dolphins' offense will once again be under the direction of junior quarterback Gary Cooper, who has been one of the mainstays in the JU starting lineup since the inaugural season of 1998. Cooper's leadership and game experience translates into stability for the Dolphins offense, which averaged 22.3 points per game last season.

"He has a strong grasp of the offense," says Gilbert. "Although he tends to make big plays, he understands he doesn't have to make big plays for us to win, He needs to keep us out of bad situations and let the receivers and running backs make the plays."

Despite missing two games due to injury in 1999, Cooper led the team with 1,205 yards and eight touchdowns, and helped direct a passing attack that ranked 39th in the country with 224.8 yards per game. Cooper's big-play ability showed with 10 plays of 30 or more yards.

Sophomore Mike Martinez emerged as the No. 2 quarterback in the spring after transferring from Cumberland College, where he started all 10 games as a freshman throwing for more than 800 yards and four touchdowns. He is athletic at 6-2, 192 pounds, and has strong leadership skills which made him the first freshman quarterback to ever start at Cumberland.

Also look for junior transfer Scott Brickley to push for time as a backup after coming to JU in the spring semester from Dodge City Community College, as well as Matt Ellis, the most highly touted recruit to sign with JU in the program's three-year history.

Running Backs
Running back could be one of the deepest and most talented positions on the field for the Dolphins with the return of juniors Jon Underhill, Brent Alexander and Greg Portee. The three combined for 1,139 yards and 10 touchdowns last season as they platooned in the backfield.

"All three of these guys have a role in our offense," says Gilbert. "They all have tremendous ability and we have to find a way to get all three involved on a regular basis. Whether it be in the backfield or in the slot, we need our playmakers on the field."

Underhill led the team in rushing last season with 461 yards and five touchdowns, and proved to be a reliable receiver out of the backfield, averaging 13.1 yards per catch with two touchdowns. He is already over 1,000 yards rushing for his career (1,107) and has played in all 18 games over the past two seasons. In the off season, he improved his speed and power by competing on the JU track team, where he won the TAAC Championship in the 100-meter dash and the 4X100-meter relay.

Alexander stepped up his performance in 1999, rushing for 393 yards and four touchdowns, and averaged more than eight yards a catch out of the backfield in nine games. Alexander joined Underhill on the JU track team in the spring where the tandem helped the Dolphins capture the TAAC Championship in the 4X100-meter relay.

Portee had a great spring after an up-and-down sophomore season in which he rushed for 285 yards and a touchdown. While he did catch 11 passes for 97 yards, Portee would like to return to his 1998 form when he led the team in rushing with 747 yards and eight touchdowns.

Wide Receivers
The Dolphins also run deep at wide receiver, returning all but one of last year's top 10 receivers, including Brett Palmi, Corey Donnell and D.J. Walton. Palmi has been JU's most consistent wideout over the past two seasons, appearing in all 18 games and tallying nearly 1,000 yards receiving. The sure-handed playmaker led the team with 33 receptions for 563 yards and hauled in three touchdown passes last year. Palmi averaged 17.1 yards per catch and had four receptions of 50 yards or more.

"Brett knows the offense as well as anyone," says Gilbert. "He will be counted on to make plays and score touchdowns. He will also have to take on more of a leadership role with the loss of Rico Tillman."

Donnell, one of only two seniors on the squad, led the team with 17.7 yards per catch last year, snaring 18 balls for 319 yards and a team-high four receiving touchdowns. The speedy senior, who has played only one season of football since his sophomore year of high school, is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Three of Donnell's four touchdowns last year were for more than 35 yards (38, 39 and 63), and he worked hard in the off season to improve his speed.

"Corey worked as hard in the off season as anybody on the team," says Gilbert. "He ran on the JU track team to get faster, hit the weights to get stronger and watched film to get smarter. He should make a big impact this season."

Walton only caught three passes as a freshman, but averaged 21.3 yards per catch and has all the tools to become one of the best receivers on the team. He has good speed and hands, and is a tough player who runs good routes. The only thing he lacks is experience in the offense.

Also look for sophomore Jon Turner to make an impact after transferring from Valdosta State. Converted quarterback Jared Moses has shown good hands and redshirt freshman Teree Smith has great speed.

Tight Ends
The tight end position has been a strength for the Dolphin offense, and could have even more of an impact this season with the return of junior Scott Kennedy and sophomore Andrew Bianchi. Kennedy, who has started all 18 games in JU history, had a breakout season in 1999 averaging 12.2 yards per catch with 22 receptions for 268 yards and two touchdowns. The Academic All-American's ability to catch the ball has encouraged Gilbert to use the tight end more as a receiver.

"We want to get more receptions from our tight ends," says Gilbert. "With players like Scott and Andrew who can catch the ball, we have another weapon the defense has to deal with. It allows us to open up the offensive play calling."

Bianchi will be more of a factor after plaing in nine games as the No. 2 tight end last year. He had six catches for 53 yards and a touchdown as Kennedy's back-up.

Redshirt freshman James Willman and converted quarterback Harley Farmer, a 6-3, 230-pound freshman from St. Petersburg, Fla., will also be candidates for playing time at tight end.

Offensive Line
One of the Dolphins' biggest concerns could be the offensive line, where JU returns four starters, but lacks proven depth. Two-year starter Jeff Osborne returns at right tackle, where he has shown that he has the size and strength to be a standout, but lacks consistency. The left side book end will be Jack Duley, who played every snap as a sophomore. Duley is a strong, hard-nosed player who has proven his versatility by playing both guard and tackle for the Dolphins.

Junior Buck Walz will start his third season at left guard. He brings an intensity and fiery attitude that can help bolster the level of play of the entire offensive line. The Dolphins will be inexperienced at right guard with Scott McDonald. The 6-4, 261-pound junior has been a member of the team for two years, but has not seen any game action.

Junior Kevin Kelley returns at center after playing every snap as a sophomore. Kelley is an intelligent player who maximizes his potential and will once again make all of the calls for the offensive lineman.

"Although we have shown the ability to make big plays, the key to our entire offense is the line." Says Gilbert. "We need to be able to maintain possession by controlling the line of scrimmage."

The Defense

Formation:  4-3 Multiple
Lettermen Returning:  23
Starters Returning:  7
Starters Lost:  4
Strengths:  Team speed, overall depth and big-play capability in the secondary.
Concerns:  Defensive line and experience in secondary.
   Justin Yowell, DT
   Pete Satur, LB
   Tommy Swindell, LB
   Tyrone Wright, FS
   Mike Aybar, LB
   John Heaberlin, FS
   Charleton Williams, CB
Defensive Line
The defensive line will dictate the success of the JU defense this season. The Dolphins return every starter from last year's line and go two-deep across the front with experience. Boyd's philosophy of playing a more up-the-field style of defense will require the defensive line to be more aggressive and make more plays.

Leading the way for the Dolphins will be former All-American Justin Yowell, who moved from his defensive end position to the interior during the spring. The move is expected to fortify the JU defense, as opponents can no longer run away from the 6-3, 262-pound junior. Yowell, who earned All-America honors as a freshman but was double and triple teamed last year, will have more freedom to make plays. Yowell's numbers dropped during his sophomore season, but he managed 38 tackles (9 for loss) and two sacks despite missing two games to injury.

"Justin can make plays all over the field," says Gilbert. "Moving him to tackle really secures the inside for us. It will force the action outside and allow the athletes to make tackles."

Joining Yowell on the interior will be junior Matthew Arcarola, who played in seven games at nose guard last year registering 15 tackles. With the change in defensive formation, Arcarola will move over to tackle where his agility should pay off after losing weight in the off season. Junior Courtney Phelps and sophomore Donald Mattis provide experienced depth, while freshmen Adam Patrick and Reginald Whiteside could also see time in a back-up role in the interior.

The defensive ends bring more athleticism to the picture than in the past. Sophomore Will Weatherford, who started all nine games as a redshirt freshman, returns at left end where he ranked ninth on the team with 39 tackles and was tied for third on the squad with six tackles for loss (-24 yards). The right side will lack experience with sophomore Oliver Barnes, who played in only two games last year as a true freshman. Both Barnes and Weatherford nursed injuries in the spring, but should be ready to go by summer camp.

Juniors Scott Wilson, Roger McIntosh and Jason Anderson will provide depth along the defensive line.

Boyd's new defensive scheme will put pressure on the linebackers to make plays and show more consistency. However, a more read-and-react style of play should benefit this blue collar unit, which returns two of three starters from last year. Back are starters Daniel Irby and Pete Satur, while Tommy Swindell played in all nine games in 1999.

Irby started all nine games at weak-side linebacker as a sophomore, finishing fourth on the team with 47 tackles, including 25 solo stops and six tackles for loss (-14 yards). He has played in all 18 games at JU, and continues to show a strong desire to improve.

"Dan has the ability to be a great player," says Gilbert. "He just needs to play. He will benefit from the read-and-react system because it will allow him to use more of his instincts on the field."

Also back is Satur, who started all nine games as a sophomore at strong-side linebacker. The 5-11, 221-pound junior tied for first on the team last year with 57 tackles, including 10 for loss (-59 yards) and a team-high 4.5 sacks (-47 yards). Satur, who has been the Dolphin's most consistent linebacker, has played in all 18 games of his JU career and really sets the stage for the defense.

"Pete is a tough, hard-nosed kid who brings a mental toughness to the defense that we need," says Gilbert.

Swindell was a part-time starter at middle linebacker, where he registered 43 tackles and two sacks. With 96 tackles in the past two seasons, he understands how to get in position to make plays.

While the starters have combined for 54 games of experience at linebacker, the lack of experienced depth is a concern. Sophomore Jeff Mama played in only three games as a freshman because of injury, while sophomore James Glenn returns after missing last season to concentrate on academics. Junior Robert Effler and freshmen Hunter Schulz, Mike Aybar and Sam Darrah could also push for playing time at linebacker.

Gone are two of the team's top three tacklers from last year, and all but one starter in the secondary. However, the Dolphins do return starting free safety Tyrone Wright and a wealth of talented athletes that could make the JU secondary potentially explosive.

There are no returning starters at cornerback, but junior Russell Cheatham played in eight games last year while sophomore Linj Shell saw action in seven contests. Cheatham had 16 tackles on the season, including 11 solo stops, and an interception. In the off season, he competed on the JU track team where he was part of the 4X100-meter relay team that won the 2000 TAAC Outdoor Championship. Shell spent the majority of his time as a kick returner, but made nine tackles, including eight solo stops at cornerback.

"Both of those guys have great speed and the ability to excel in the secondary on a regular basis," says Gilbert. "They have game experience and showed steady improvement throughout last season."

Sophomores Josh Katsur and Boshawn Mack, and redshirt freshman Willie Mosley have the speed and ability to contribute in the secondary. Katsur played primarily on special teams last year, but did record a sack and broke up a pass. Mack, who also ran track in the spring and captured the TAAC Championship in the 200-meter dash, spent more time on special teams than in the secondary as a true freshman. Also look for true freshman Charleton Williams to make a run at playing time on the corner.

As the only returning starter in the secondary, Wright will need to take on more of a leadership role from his free safety position. The 6-2, 196-pound junior had 43 tackles last year with six pass breakups and four interceptions in his first season of collegiate football. Sophomore Cliff Ricketts steps in at strong safety where he played in seven games as a freshman. He finished his rookie season with 19 tackles, including eight solo stops, while picking off a pass and recovering a fumble. Sophomore Jeremy Kearson showed some promise in the spring, while freshman John Heaberlin could push for playing time at free safety after a standout prep career.

Special Teams
The kicking game poses a bit of concern with the loss of two-year place kicker David Stickler. Punter Brett Keener will assume both duties for now, but ideally would just concentrate on punting, where he averaged nearly 37 yards per punt last season and placed 14 kicks inside the 20-yard line.

The Dolphin return game is a strength with the return of Russell Cheatham, Linj Shell and Brett Palmi. Cheatham was the team's top kick returner last year, averaging 19.7 yards per return for nearly 300 yards. Shell split kick return duties with Cheatham with 15 returns for 269 yards (17.9 avg.), while Palmi was the only Dolphin to return punts last year, averaging 8.4 yards on 21 returns. All three possess breakaway speed and make the return game potentially dangerous.

"We've got strength in numbers in the return game," says Gilbert. "Between the experience and talent of the returnees, and the potential of the freshman coming in, we have plenty of candidates and flexibility."