A quick glance up and down the current Tampa Bay Storm roster with less than a week before the 2017 opener Saturday, April 8 in Cleveland reveals a few familiar names but mostly players with little previous connection to the franchise.
The Storm roster experienced a major upheaval following a 2016 season in which the team finished 2-14 in the regular season and lost to eventual ArenaBowl champion Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs.
Only four players remain from last year’s squad: John Brown, Kendrick Ings, Dallas Jackson and Cortez Stubbs.
With so much unfamiliarity among the 24-man roster, chemistry and cohesion should, naturally, take time to build.
But for the Storm, it’s actually been quite the opposite.
“The crazy thing about this team is I feel like since day one, we’ve bonded,” Storm defensive lineman Antron Dillon said. “We’ve been gelling. The second week (of training camp), I feel like the offense has made leaps and bounds. The defense kind of hit the ball rolling and we’ve been going strong from day one, but I like the progress and I’m excited for the season.”
Dillon has played five seasons in the Arena Football League for four separate teams prior to joining the Storm during the offseason. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive lineman said this is the most togetherness he’s seen on one team this early.
“I’ve been on several teams, and in the beginning, it’s always, ‘Aw man, this guy’s trying to get my spot. Aw man, this and that,’” Dillon said. “From day one, it’s been bonding, it’s been team, it’s been brotherhood. I’m excited. I love it.”
Randy Hippeard was with the Storm in 2013 and 2014 but signed with the Orlando Predators prior to the 2015 season and spent the next two years with the Storm’s War on I-4 rival. Back in Tampa Bay for his second go-round, Hippeard said training camp under first-year head coach Ron James has been eye-opening.
“I don’t think I’ve been a part of a better camp since I joined the league,” Hippeard said. “Coach James and (offensive assistant coach Shane) Stafford and those guys are taking real good care of us. It’s a real professional atmosphere this year.”
James is entering his 20th season in the Arena Football League and brings over 30 years of coaching experience, including eight as a head coach. He spent the 2016 season as the head coach of the Portland Steel.
James said he’s been impressed by the professionalism exhibited by the Storm during the first two weeks of training camp and his players’ attention to detail.
“We’re right on schedule and excited about what we’re doing,” he said. “I think we’ve got some good things going on out here. I think the energy level’s exceptionally high. Just really excited about where we are relative to the process. We’ve got a couple more days to put in the can so to speak and then we’re ready to go for Cleveland.”
The Storm have been able to add a number of veterans to the roster during the offseason, including 2016 AFL Offensive Player of the Year wide receiver Joe Hills; All-Arena mac linebacker Dexter Jackson; jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson; defensive lineman Caesar Rayford, a University of Washington product who spent time with the Dallas Cowboys in 2013; and former AFL Kicker of the Year Mark Lewis.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran players out here that have led the charge,” James said. “We’re doing things at a different pace, a different rate if you will. Everything we’re looking at right now has just been head and shoulders above my expectations.”
Despite the cohesiveness, Hills, who returns to Tampa Bay after two supremely productive seasons in Jacksonville, said the team isn’t where it needs to be to take on Cleveland in Saturday’s season opener, but that’s natural. The Storm will use the upcoming week of preparations to solidify and refine the game plan in hopes of winning the season opener for the first time since 2014.
“We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to work on,” Hills said. “We’re getting there, just trying to get better every day.
"I think the sky’s the limit for the team."