JSU's non-scholarship opponent won't be a pushover
by Al Muskewitz
Sep 03, 2013 | 2547 views |  0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville University coach Kerwin Bell with his son, quarterback Kade Bell. (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville University)
Jacksonville University coach Kerwin Bell with his son, quarterback Kade Bell. (Photo courtesy of Jacksonville University)
JACKSONVILLE — We know what you’re thinking. The team Jacksonville State is playing in its home opener Saturday is a non-scholarship football program. Non-scholarship means non-athletes. It should be a pushover.

Both JSU coach Bill Clark and Jacksonville University coach Kerwin Bell would challenge that. They know better.

The Dolphins may not offer athletic scholarships to the 100 or so players on their roster, which includes a junior varsity squad, but they have guys who can play.

They’ve won at least seven games each of the last five years, as many as 10 as recently as 2010 when the former Florida quarterback had a team that led the nation in total offense and scoring. They’ve beaten teams that do give athletic scholarships before and had traditional FCS power Delaware down 14-0 in the first quarter of their season opener Thursday night before losing.

“They look the part,” Clark said. “If you look at this team and talk to the guys from Delaware and others, they look like teams in our league.

“When you come out here and look and think this is some gimme game, it’s so far from that it’s not even close.”

The Dolphins have dominated the Pioneer Football League with a roster full of homegrown talent that maybe didn't want to leave the state or turned down a smaller school for the chance to play for consistently winning program. They've won two conference titles and more PFL games in the last five years than any of the other 11 teams in the non-scholarship Division I league, which stretches from coast to coast. This year, the league's regular-season winner gets an automatic bid to the expanded FCS playoffs. JU is picked third.

"We've come a long way as a non-scholarship program," Bell said. "When we first got here we couldn't compete at all with a scholarship program at any level, but one of my goals was to be one of the best non-scholarship programs until we make a decision to go one day.

"Also, it gives our kids a chance to go compete against kids who are good football players. We've played App State twice, Georgia Southern, beat Old Dominion up there. We've been able to be in some games and play in those games. We've been able to be competitive in some and not quite in others."

The difference in the Dolphins playing the Gamecocks or any other FCS program is like the Gamecocks hitting the road to play an FBS team — the larger program’s depth eventually takes its toll.

"The big difference everybody talks about with the FBS and the FCS is that's 85 to 63 scholarships," Bell said. "Us going to play Jacksonville State, it's 63 to 0. It's bigger than the FCS and FBS, but ... we still have some skill players and athletes who can compete."

That would be evidenced by their six preseason all-conference picks, and those don't include the Dolphins' two most dynamic players — quarterback Kade Bell, the coach's son, and receiver Andrew Robustelli, the grandson of the NFL Hall of Famer of the same name. The all-PFL picks are offensive linemen Dan Bostick and Tramell Williams, defensive lineman Juan Pimienta, linebacker Tre Davis, defensive back Jordan Dewhirst and kicker Dylan Lynch.

Still, even with a massive offensive line, an active defensive front and good skill athletes, Bell realizes getting past the Gamecocks won't be an easy task. One thing both coaches know, the Dolphins have been in enough of these games they won't be in awe of their surroundings.

"We're a darkhorse," Bell said. "We're going to try to make it competitive. We'll go in there, give it our best shot and see what happens. I like our football team talent-wise. We have some skill players and guys who make plays and any time you have that, you have a chance. But we've got to play a perfect game and have some things go our way."

The Gamecocks certainly aren't looking past them.

"They're not lower guys, because when you step on the field it's 11 on 11 for the game," Gamecocks defensive back Brandon Bender said. "I was watching North Dakota State play Kansas State. That's when I realized it's 11 on the field for both teams, and those guys are really impressive to watch. I just know they're going to come ready to play."

Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.

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