JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville football linebacker coach Jerry Odom's resume lists positions from the high school ranks to Arena Football world champions. Entering his sixth season on the Dolphin staff, this season of coaching may turn out to be his favorite because of his position group and the team's determination.
"I've coached at every level and this is as fun of a group as I've ever coached. Every day I've challenged them to play hard and they respond ready to go," said Odom.
The linebacker unit returns two starters, a veteran transfer, and young, exciting talent.
Leading the charge at weak side, or "Will" linebacker is two-year starter Grady Redding. Last year as a sophomore, Redding earned First-Team All-Pioneer Football League honors with 45 solo tackles and 12 tackles for a loss. The wrecking ball was a turnover machine, picking off two passes and forcing two fumbles.
"He's extremely explosive and fast. He plays angry. He's definitely a playmaker. I want to see him take that next step and be disciplined in all of his assignments," said Odom.
D.J. Howard, who started eight games last year, will again see time at middle linebacker. Howard was a constant presence in opposing backfields last fall when he registered three sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss.
Odom noted that Howard is being pushed by sophomore Malik Slater who is "playing at a very high level. Both of them will be co-starters and get plenty of reps."
The starting strong side, or "Sam" linebacker will be a new face this fall. Jacksonville welcomes in Josh Celerin from Central Connecticut State where he was a three-year starter at safety. Odom noted his speed and his coverage abilities are among the defense's best.
The role of the "Sam" linebacker is hybrid and can be used interchangeable in nickel formations. It's a luxury to have the talent and body types to change formations without having to sub in personnel, and one that the Dolphins have been building towards for a couple of years.
Prior to last year, the coaching staff felt that defense needed to be more athletic to match up with the ever evolving spread offenses. The staff did that by moving players around, and now the defense, according to Odom, "is not as big, but tremendously more athletic."
Odom wants to get as much athleticism on the field that he can, and hopes to play at least six to seven linebackers that he can trust in the season opener at Delaware on Sept. 4.
Amongst those in the mix, Odom has been pleased with Harrison Rodormer and Trey Barnes to spell Redding or Howard. The linebacker coach noted that Rodormer has been "playing really good," and both played in key games last fall.
The starting long snapper, Griffin Garland, has also had an impressive camp at weak side linebacker.
Jeremy Jones, Gabe Stewart, and Joe Carraway are all vying for playing time behind Celerin in a "Sam" linebacker or nickel back role. Odom likes the competition and noted that "all have potential to be very, very good."
Whoever is on the field will be tasked with forcing turnovers at a high rate like last season when the Dolphins were + 9 in the turnover margin.
"Turnovers give you momentum. When we have a turnover against us, we call it putting out the fire," said Odom. "You've got to be like firemen and put out the fire whether that's a three and out, or forcing a field goal instead of a touchdown. We want to put pressure on the opposing offense and set our offense up for success."
Odom exuded belief in the defense's ability to create momentum through turnovers and has loved their attitude. He trusts in their ability, love for the game, and a laser-like focus entering this season.
"They're a fun group to coach. They're funny, they care, and they play hard. I feel like they're going to be pretty good as long as they continue to buy into playing gap-sound defense, understanding the fits, and playing on the other side of the football," said Odom. "They may not win every battle, but they will sure fight every battle."