JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jacksonville University defensive coordinator Jerry Odom has a name for sophomore linebacker DeAngelo "DJ'' Howard and, really, it's not a bad one.
"I call him my Swiss Army knife,'' Odom said this week. "That's because he's dependable. He has played every linebacker position for us … this year.''
Howard, a sophomore from Daytona Beach, Fla., was thrown into the fray – and is holding up his end of the deal -- before the Butler game when starter Tre Davis went down for the season with a shoulder injury.
Mr. Dependable has responded by leading the team in tackles both games (nine against Butler and a career-high 13 against Drake last week), has a sack, two tackles for losses and a couple of pass breakups and this week is the Pioneer Football League co-Defensive Player of the Week. He currently is second on the team in tackles with 29 to linebacker Grady Redding's 41.
And this isn't coming on a defense full of weaklings where a reserve saunters in and gets a starting spot. It's on a defense that leads the PFL in scoring defense and is fourth in total defense.
This year's two starts aren't his first for the Dolphins as he got the call a couple of times last season when Anthony Joiner went down.
"I stepped in and played pretty well,'' Howard, who originally moved to the varsity as a freshman on special teams, said.
Heading into this season, Howard pretty much resigned himself to second fiddle, especially after hamstring issues left him hamstrung early on.
He pulled both of them.
"I pulled the left one in the summer and in camp pulled the right one,'' Howard said. "I didn't think I was going to play and was focusing on special teams again.''
After the team's opener at Southeastern Louisiana, Howard hooked up with team chiropractic Dr. David Rouse, who has an office across the street from campus and also is the team chiropractic for the Jacksonville Jaguars, for some "dry needling'' work on the hamstrings.
Howard was unfazed by the prospect of the needling, which is the same concept as acupuncture but with technical differences such as the length and depth of the needles.
"It didn't freak me out at all,'' Howard said. "He (Dr. Rouse) said it should hurt but it felt good to me when I got used to it. He has me moving pretty well and since then I've been playing well.''
Head athletic trainer for football Doug Frye said the dry needling has been a big help this season.
"Dr. Rouse has done an amazing job with it,'' Frye said. "It is healing soft tissue injuries twice as fast and is definitely reducing time lost from soft tissue injuries in conjunction with what we do.''
The healing process and Howard's propensity to read the quarterback as the game goes a long are what to what he attributes this season's success and the Drake game was a good example of the latter.
"Studying film helped out with knowing their routes and I knew when to jump on it when not to; knew when to show blitz and not,'' Howard said. "The quarterback (Andy Rice) kept checking different things and it got to a point where I just got used to him in that he was going to check here if I moved to this spot and if I moved to another spot he'd check here. Once we did a certain blitz two times, I realized he would move a certain step every time which is why I made the last sack because I saw him anticipate and wrapped back around. In game adjustments come natural to me.''
Still, Howard wasn't totally pleased with his effort.
"I remember everything about that game,'' he said. "I was upset on the pass breakups because they should have been interceptions. I still helped the team but wish they would have been interceptions.''
Odom is merely thankful for the help.
"When a guy like Tre Davis goes down and DJ steps in and two games in a row he's led us in tackles it shows the mettle he's made of. He's one of my favorite guys,'' Odom said. "He tries to be accountable in everything he does and if he busts an assignment he tries to never do it again and that makes him a good ball player.''
Odom says he can't foresee things changing at the position anytime soon.
"Nobody feels worse that Tre got hurt than DJ and we all want to see Tre healthy,'' Odom said. "We said we're going to put DJ in there and let him run with it and I don't think he plans on giving that job up any time soon.''
- Jim Nasella