(STATS) – It sounds odd that a program coming off two straight 9-2 seasons would be in need of a fresh start.
But that's the scenario with Jacksonville, whose success in recent years doesn't belie its eighth-place forecast in the Pioneer Football League's preseason coaches poll. Last year's co-champs were picked up top again, with San Diego a slight preseason favorite over Dayton.
It's been a rough two seasons at Jacksonville despite the wins on the field. The Dolphins were ineligible for the PFL title in both seasons due to violations against the league's need-based financial aid guidelines. Former coach Kerwin Bell's clash with the athletic department over the concept of moving from the non-scholarship to the scholarship level also went public.
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While Jacksonville went 66-35 in nine seasons under Bell, including 52-19 in the PFL, the Dolphins vacated 30 league wins from 2010-14 due to the violations. His contract was not renewed after last season and Jacksonville hired Ian Shields from Lenoir-Rhyne, where he was 16-6 the last two seasons.
But this year, the Dolphins must replace 16 players who earned All-PFL recognition of some level last season and return only eight starters (five offensive and three defensive), so the preseason poll suggest they face transition instead of challenging for the league title.
“The veteran guys that really form that bulk of the one- and two-deep in our roster right now, I think they'll take it to heart that everyone has them picked (near) the bottom of the conference,” Shield said. “There's a proud tradition here, these guys are used to winning games. We shouldn't lack for much motivation in our locker room.”
Shields is bringing in a freshman class that numbers around 50, so the former offensive coordinator at Army is going to need some youngsters to grow up quickly and make quick contributions. Redshirt junior quarterback Rylan Wells, whose grandfather is former Tennessee coach Doug Dickey, will run an up-tempo option offense, and he will want to get the ball to running backs Ulysses Bryant and Jamal Adjaman.
Shields used to coach under Rich Ellerson at Army, but the roles have switched at Jacksonville as Ellerson, who helped develop the Desert Swarm defense at Arizona, is the defensive coordinator. His unit will feature linebacker Grady Redding, who joined Bryant on the PFL preseason team.
“The cupboard's not bare. We have some athletes who can run and hit here at Jacksonville still,” Shields said.
“I inherit a program that's been on probation the last two years,” he added. “Our guys are excited about finally being able to compete for a conference championship. Obviously, there's work to do in front of us. We'll be a young, inexperienced team, but we have a lot of kids that believe in what we are doing and are excited to play.”
Both of the PFL's players of the year return this season in Morehead State quarterback Austin Gahafer and Stetson safety Donald Payne (also the league's 2014 defensive player of the year).
All 11 PFL teams had at least one player on Tuesday's preseason team, led by the two defending co-champions, Dayton with seven and San Diego with five. San Diego was first in Monday's coaches preseason poll for the sixth consecutive year.