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Jacksonville University begins camp in anticipation of Pioneer title defense
Jacksonville University has begun to prepare for their Pioneer Football League (PFL) title defense with the opening of training camp under third-year coach Kerwin Bell.
JU claimed their first PFL championships in program history, rallying to beat Dayton, 19-14, in the regular season finale for the Dolphins’ school-record seventh straight win. Jacksonville was 9-4 overall and 7-1 in conference play in 2008.
“I’m excited to get the season started,” Bell said. “This group has a lot of potential to build on the success we had last season. I’m looking forward to getting on the field to work on getting this season going.”
Bell, a former University of Florida quarterback, led JU to the top of the PFL standings in his second season as coach. The Dolphins had been 3-8 in 2007 and had experienced only one other winning season since starting football in 1998.
“This was a good start to training camp,” Bell said. “Our guys came out ready to work and got after it. We have several new guys that we’re working into the system and they did a good job of taking what we talked about in meetings and putting into action on the field.”
There are great expectations this season after the 2008 team ranked in the top 40 nationally in both total offense and defense.
Phil Steele’s Pigskin Preview has JU tied for second with Dayton behind San Diego. The Dolphins had five players named preseason first team all-conference by the publication, as well as five players receiving second team honors.
Running back Rudell Small, with 1,364 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, was a first team selection on the offense. The 5-9, 205-pound running back has played under Bell for seven straight seasons dating back to high school.
Lineman Shaun Lewis, 13.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 60 tackles in 2008, and defensive back Jason Wood represent a solid defense. The Dolphins’ secondary was ranked fifth nationally in defensive passing efficiency. Experience looks to improve a run defense that ranked 73rd nationally last season.
Wood led the Dolphins in tackles last season with 83. He also led the team with 14 pass break ups and pass defenses (15) to go along with one interception.
“Jason is one of our leaders on defense and made a lot of big plays for us last season,” Bell noted. “With his ability to cover receivers as well as step up in run support, we are expecting a big season out of Jason this fall.”
Wood had at least eight tackles in a game five times, led by a season-best 13 tackles against No. 1 Appalachian State.
He enters his final season with 189 career tackles, needing 28 more to move into a tie for fifth with Pete Satur on the school’s all-time. Tremaine Mack recorded four interceptions, three touchdowns, 5.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
Cornerback Brian Valdez returns to anchor a unit that held six opponents to 10 points or less last season. Will Perry (68 tackles, five tackles for loss) will lead a linebacking corps.
“I give all the credit in the world to Ron McCrone, our defensive coordinator,” Bell said. “Our defense is very complex with a lot of different coverages.”
Kicker Donovan Curry and return specialist Elliott Finkley earned first team honors for special teams. Finkley returned three punts for touchdowns last season and ranked eighth nationally with a 15.7 average.
Quarterback Josh McGregor was a second team selection. McGregor earned freshman of the year honors in 2008, setting a school record with 2,444 yards passing and 24 scores. McGregor is expected to recover enough off- season shoulder surgery to start opening day.
Offensive linemen Leonard Payton and Ian Osking along with defensive lineman Rolando Fines and linebacker Joseph Fennell, 61 tackles, eight tackles for loss, one interception, on the second team, joined McGregor.
Last year, JU faces the top-ranked team in the country when they faced Appalachian State in the second game of this season. This year, the Dolphins will be put to the test against another top 25 team from the Southern Conference - Samford.
The Bulldogs are ranked 23rd in several preseason publications and are expected to be a contender in the Southern Conference.
“One of our goals in scheduling every year is to play a game against a high-caliber program that we can test ourselves,” Bell said. “Samford is a great program that has made a lot of progress and is where we want to be - a nationally ranked program.”
JU will be playing five home games – starting with Old Dominion on Sept. 19. The Dolphins PFL-title defense will begin on Oct. 3 at they host Davidson, the only team that beat JU in the league this past season. After Davidson, the Dolphins face three grueling road trips over a four-week period – at Marist (Oct. 10), at San Diego (Oct. 24) and at Drake (Oct. 31). JU has one home game sandwiched in that stretch against Morehead State on Oct. 17.
JU wraps up the regular with two of the final three at home. The Dolphins host Valparaiso (Nov. 7) and Butler (Nov. 14) before ending the campaign at Campbell (Nov. 21).
By Mike Bonts