This Saturday is (finally) the season opener and start of the Ian Shields era as the head coach of the Jacksonville Dolphins. Only the third head coach in program history, he brings a new spread option offense to JU, which has piqued the interest of many to see what it will look like on the field this season.
The opener is on the road against the Liberty Flames in Lynchburg, Virginia. The Flames are coming off a 6-5 season after a couple of 8 win years., and dropped their opener 36-13 at Virginia Tech last week. They are lead by Turner Gill, the former Kansas and Buffalo head coach and Nebraska standout during the Tom Osbourne era.
Fun Facts About the Flames
Liberty is the seventh largest university in the country and the largest in Virginia, despite having just 15, 000 undergraduate students enrolled. The university has over 100,000 online students.
Students on campus are also required to attend convocation three times a week. The gatherings feature professors and guest speakers, musicians and performers and live praise and worship. Let’s look at the matchup.
Rylan Wells takes over after four years of Kade Bell and his injury replacements. He replaced the injured Bell against Dayton and Davidson and flourished in his new role as the starter for the final two games of 2015, finishing the season with 967 yards passing and eight touchdowns while completing 61% of his passes. Known more as a runner before showing off his arm, he will get to show his true dual-threat ability in Shields offense.
Junior Stephon Masha takes over as the signal caller for the Flames this year, after seeing action in late game situations last year. He has very little passing experience and it showed last week against the Hokies when he completed just 9-25 passes for 70 yards, two interceptions and no TDs. He also carried nine times for 23 yards rushing. Will he run more this week?
Edge: Jacksonville, based on experience and potential.
The running game will be the focal point of the Dolphin offense this year and they return a host of good ones. Former 1000-yard rusher Ulysses Bryant leads the way, with fellow senior Frantz Caudio returning from injury, junior Jamal Adjamah and sophomore Pernell Rattray figuring to get most of the touches. All of these guys can run, but how quickly can they grasp the system?
The two-headed backfield of Todd Macon and Carrington Mosley ran with reasonable success against VT last week, combining for 81 yards on 21 carries. Macon also scored the lone offensive touchdown, while Mosley averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Expect the ground game to be established early.
Edge: Jacksonville, based off horses and scheme.
Bryant is the leading returning receiver for JU, and is one of only two players who caught 20 or more passes last season. But that might not matter much, since some of the freshman, who are bigger than past receivers and fit the blocking scheme better, have impressed in camp.
No one had more than two catches for Liberty last week, and the leading returner from last season, diminutive senior Zac Parker is not even listed as a starter. Tight end Kendall Couamin, at 6’2″ 255 pounds, is matchup problem.
Edge: Liberty, since they look to throw the ball more and have some seasoned returners.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Dolphins. Return three players who started games last season, but only RT Robert Ritterhoff is an upperclassman. Six freshman are listed on the two-deep.
Feature three upperclassman up front and only gave up one sack and two tackles for loss against Bud Foster’s vaunted Virginia Tech defense last week. They average 309 pounds along the front five.
Edge: Liberty, based off size and experience.
Return two players who have seen significant playing time in their careers in end Jareeq Crenshaw and tackle Tyler Havenner. The two combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. After that, no one else has recorded a tackle.
Sophomore end Juwan Wells is the star here, with 7.5 TFL and five sacks in just eight games and one start last year. His support from run-stuffers JaRon Greene at nose guard and Erwin Dessources lining up at the other end make this line a handful for anyone.
Edge: Liberty, for sheer depth.
Grady Redding returns after leading the team in tackles for a second straight season. Harrison Rodomer has bided his time the last two seasons, and should be a tackle machine. Coaches are high on Justin Horton’s ability to rush off the edge.
Like JU, the middle linebacker is the returning leading tackler. Senior Nick Newman had 74 last year, but not many game-breaking plays. Junior Solomon McGinty is new to the lineup this year, and did not record a stat in the opener.
Edge: Jacksonville. Both teams have consistent players in the middle, but JU has greater experience outside.
After finishing at or near the top of the country in interceptions the last two seasons (24 in 2014, 20 in 2015), the secondary has to fill some spots and learn a slightly different scheme. Armani Sampson returns to lock down one side, and had four INTs last year, returning one for a touchdown. Other players, such as KJ Jenkins and Emon Smith, have played plenty but are now starters as upperclassmen.
A sure tackler in safety Corbin Jackson leads the secondary for the Flames. His backup, Alpha Jalloh, sees plenty of time as well. The rest of the secondary is fairly experienced, but only managed 10 interceptions last year.
Edge: Liberty, they have plenty of sure tacklers, and that is a necessity against the spread option.
The Dolphins return their talented punter, but break in a new kicker this year. The returners are new, but shifty with good potential.
See above. The Flames are in a similar situation. Their freshman kicker missed one of two extra points last week.
Jacksonville has the element of surprise helping it and hurting it. How quickly will players get in to a rhythm, and can they against a talented, scholarship squad from the Big South, in what will be a hostile environment at Williams Stadium. Liberty should win, and we should learn some things about the new look Dolphins.
Jacksonville kicks off the 2016 season at Liberty Saturday at 7 p.m. The game can be watched on ESPN3 and heard on 1010 AM locally.