JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In its recently completed season that included plenty of highlights, one of the brightest spots for the JU football team was leading not only the Pioneer Football League, but the nation, in interceptions.
That didn't happen by accident.
The Dolphins, who finished at 9-2, had 24 picks which obliterated the previous team record (16) but tripled the number from 2013 (eight) as 13 different players got in on the action.
Focus on the interceptions started way back in training camp when co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach James Rowe relayed the idea that should the team catch every interception it would lead the PFL. Obviously, the idea worked.
"The defense really took to that,'' safeties coach Jake Grande said. "Even in practice, if a guy dropped a ball or did something when the opportunity was there, they'd run to him and say 'man, you've got to catch that one'. Not trying to make unbelievable plays, but making the plays they're supposed to make.''
Rowe borrowed the idea of catching the interceptions from Greg Schiano, who coached at both Rutgers and the Tampa Bay Bucs. In conjunction, because of the strength of the front end of the defense, the linemen and linebackers, the secondary was able to change up its looks.
"We did a good job emphasizing in practice and schematically we played a little more cover 2 where we had eyes on the quarterback more,'' Rowe explained.
Another factor, Rowe said, was concentrating on grabbing tipped balls.
"Coach Grande always mentions the stat about interceptions off tipped balls,'' Rowe said. "A lot of ours were off tipped balls; the defensive linemen being in the face of the quarterback causing bad throws. It was a team effort and we did a great job.''
"We preach to defensive backs that it's a group effort,'' Grande said. "If we cover a second longer we might get a sack, if the d-lineman gets to the quarterback a second earlier, that's less we have to cover and might get a chance to break on the ball. And, in individual drills every day there was 100 percent focus by these guys.''
The pick parade began in the second quarter of the first game against Southeast Louisiana when linebacker Mike Klein (New Smyrna Beach, Fla.) got an interception. Later in the game, freshman Brandon Roe (Douglas, Ga.), who ended the year with four picks, got his first and he followed that with picks in games two and three.
The team didn't realize the record-setting pace it was on until a few games into the season.
"We didn't really know until one of the defensive backs told us we were leading the nation in interceptions,'' Grande said. "I think we had seven at the time (after the third game against Penn) and we used that as motivation by saying 'guys, this is how good we can be. There is no bar set for us'. They bought into that, if there was an opportunity we made the plays. Athletically this is one of the best defensive backs groups in the country.''
The school record-breaker came against Limestone when junior Andrew Hooks (Bowling Green, Fla.) returned one 95 yards in the second quarter for a touchdown and the team's 17th of the season.
The music played to a Mozart-like composed crescendo in the season's next to last game when the Dolphins intercepted Davidson a record-tying five times.
The leader of the Pick Pack was junior Dallas Jackson (Palmetto, Fla.), who started at corner and moved to safety. He had five for the season which also tied a school record.
"Dallas has great ball skills and we moved him to safety because of his understanding of the defense,'' Rowe said. "He knows that defense better than anybody. We expect even better from him next year.''