NIU football: Former 170-pound walk-on safety Jaden Dolphin ready for senior year at linebacker

Maine West grad taking charge of LB room while making shift to weakside linebacker

Jaden Dolphin, left, a defenseman for Northern Illinois University works on some drills during practice along with teammate Quinn Urwiler on Saturday March 30, 2024, held at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Jaden Dolphin was a 170-pound walk-on safety when he joined NIU before the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.

Four years later, Dolphin is a 220-pound linebacker and figures to be a key component for the Huskies’ defense, which was 23rd in the country last year, allowing 319.5 yards per game.

“Defense is rolling, feels like we’re picking up right where we left off,” the senior said after a spring practice this month. “It’s all the details. We’ve built a culture here now, and the guys know that. We come in ready to work every day. We come in with energy. The focus now is on the smaller details. We’ve got the basic techniques now, the basic fundamentals down, now it’s time to take it to the next level.”

Dolphin, a Maine West graduate, was second on the team with 61 tackles last year behind returning defensive end Ray Thomas. The team’s third- and fourth-leading tacklers were linebackers and have graduated. The Huskies brought in Marc Pretto (Fordham) and Christian Fuhrman (Southeast Missouri State) to replace the two outgoing seniors, Tyler Jackson and DaRon Gilbert.

Batavia grad Quinn Urwiler and Jake Gassaway are in their third seasons with the Huskies and have spent a lot of time on special teams. They also should be in the linebacker mix behind Furhman and Dolphin.

“It feels like we’ve become a tighter-knit group,” Dolphin said. “We’ve been hitting a lot better, getting in the pocket, getting some more pressure.”

NIU coach Thomas Hammock said Dolphin and Fuhrman will be leading the group of linebackers this year.

Dolphin mostly played special teams in 2020 while listed as a safety, but he moved to the team’s hybrid linebacker-safety position the next season, playing every game and making 39 tackles. In 2022 he played the final four games of the season as a true linebacker.

Hammock said he’s been impressed with how Dolphin has progressed since joining the program, citing the work he’s done with Juney Barnett, director of sports performance.

“For me it’s been great to see his progression,” Hammock said. “You hear guys talk about him now, as a senior. But if you would have seen him as a freshman, those guys may have not wanted him. But he developed, and coach Juney and the strength staff really did a good job with him. And he’s done a really great job building his body up to a point where he’s a 6-2, 225-pound linebacker that can run 4.7.”

Hammock said that Dolphin shifting to the weakside linebacker position will help him a lot. Second-year linebackers coach Adam Breske said Dolphin has really taken charge at his new position on the field and as a senior leader.

“Moved him over to the Will position to give him a new look at the defense,” Breske said. “He’s really grabbed that with two hands and taken off with it. Leadership has always been there with him. He’s more confident and more comfortable, and you’re really seeing that.”

Dolphin said he has enjoyed stepping into a bigger leadership role.

“The game has really slowed down for me,” Dolphin said. “I’m experienced now and getting to the point where I’m seeing a lot of things happen pre-snap before they happen. I’m seeing a lot of the movements slow down, and it’s easier to key. And I feel like I can help a lot of younger guys with that right now. A lot of guys coming from high school, it’s a different game. It’s a lot faster, a lot of the younger guys doing a lot of thinking, and it’s easy to step into that role and show them how to go about things.”

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