JEFF DALE : Rookie Free Safety Is the Big Hitter in Chargers’ Defense
He lives in Fletcher Hills, not Beverly Hills. His name is Jeffrey, not Lester or Lyle. But it only takes a few minutes to realize this guy wouldn’t mind seeing his likeness splashed upon a billboard on the Sunset Strip.
Jeffrey Dale is young and hasn’t had time to develop into an accomplished self-promoter. He isn’t performing in a media center and he isn’t part of an outfit blessed with an outsized macho image. On the contrary, he labors with a unit stigmatized as the most wimpish in the business.
Still, this straightforward, no-hype rookie from LSU could turn out to be the most threatening defensive weapon San Diego has seen since Fred Dean was exiled to the Bay Area.
A 215-pound free safety--believed to be the largest at his position in the NFL--Dale is beginning to establish himself as one the league’s big hitters. Given the albatross--the Chargers’ reputation for being meek defenders--draped around his thick neck, recognition is bound to lag a couple of years behind his accomplishments.
In only nine games, he has already strung together quite a hit parade. To the videotape:
--In the fourth quarter of the season-opener at Buffalo, Dale tackles tight end Eason Ransom and causes a fumble, ending a threat that reaches the San Diego 11-yard line. The Chargers win, 14-9.
--In an otherwise forgettable Monday night appearance against the Raiders on national TV, Dale tackles Marcus Allen and causes a fumble, one of the few mistakes by the Raiders that evening.
--In San Diego’s biggest win of the year, a 30-10 victory over Denver, Dale tackles running back Gerald Willhite as he nears the goal line and causes a fumble recovered in the end zone by the Chargers. The play preserves a 17-3 lead, denies the Broncos seven points and precedes a Charger touchdown that breaks the game open.
“People say I look like a linebacker because I’m 6-4 and weigh 215 pounds,” Dale said. “I think my size scares running backs and wide receivers a little. I think they’re getting a little hesitant to come over the middle against me.
“Players on three other teams have told me that I get mentioned by coaches when they study films. ‘Watch No. 37, he’ll hit you. You better catch the ball and put it away.’ ”
Dale is a long way from the recognition accorded free safeties such as Lester Hayes and Kenny Easley. But he is building a case for himself.
“He’s the biggest free safety I’ve ever coached,” said defensive backfield coach Jim Wagstaff. “Usually, a guy his size is going to give away something in the area of speed, but not Jeffrey.
“He’s the prototype for the free safety as far as his size and speed. Certainly, down the line, he could be a Pro Bowler. We don’t constantly harp on trying to force turnovers, but the fact is, the fumble he caused against Denver was our biggest defensive play of the season.”
Dale has had a few problems besides lining up in a defense that gets no respect.
“It’s taken me a while to learn all my keys,” Dale said. “I haven’t been burned deep yet--knock on wood--but my overall responsibility has only become clear in the last two games.
“I started feeling good in our game against the Raiders. I was happy to be on the field. I had been having trouble with my run keys, but that night, it started coming around.”
As most armchair fans probably realize that watching what the offensive guards do is a key to how a play will develop. It took Dale some time to learn to react properly to those keys within the San Diego scheme.
“The guards show you if it’s going to be a run or a pass,” Dale said. “As long as the guards don’t come toward me, it’s usually a pass. I base most of my reactions on what those guards do.”
A tougher adjustment was just learning to live on his own. Little things, such as establishing credit and paying bills, aren’t automatically included in the education of a college football player. Those were new wrinkles to Dale--and probably to most first-year pros honest enough to admit it.
“There’s more individual responsibility when you’re on your own,” Dale said.
He has a fairly structured day, which begins when he reports to work at 7 a.m. and usually doesn’t end until 11:30 at night.
To take his mind off his responsibilities, Dale is learning to play an organ. He also listens to a variety of music and watches scary movies on his VCR.
When he views the Chargers’ game film, Dale is pleased with what he sees--and also a little surprised.
“I never knew if I could make it in the NFL,” he said. “That was always a gray area for me. In college I heard for three or four years I could make it in the pros, but I had questions in my own mind.
“Now that I’m here, I demand a lot of myself. I really strain to do my best, so I can’t say I’m surprised at what I’ve done. There are two big points--I have been consistent and I haven’t been hurt. I’ve been on the field most of the time. I could have played better, but I now know in my heart I can be one of the best.”
Get ready, Lester. You may have company.