TAMPA BAY – The Tampa Bay Storm (0-0) kicks off its 30th season in the Arena Football League this Saturday, April 8 at Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland, OH) when it takes on the Cleveland Gladiators (0-0). Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. EST.
This will be the 21st meeting between these two franchises and the eighth time the Storm has faced the Gladiators on the road. Cleveland leads the overall series 11-9 and has winning record of 5-2 when hosting the Storm. The last time the Storm defeated Cleveland on the road was on June 19, 2015, when the team won by a score of 52-48.
After a disappointing 2016 season, the Storm was left with more questions than answers. Making a change on the sidelines, the team named Ron James its seventh head coach in team history. James came to the Storm with over 30 years of coaching experience. Over the course of his career, he’s garnered numerous accolades including being named the 2012 AFL Head Coach of the Year after helping lead the Utah Blaze to an appearance in the National Conference Championship. He revamped the Storm coaching staff, bringing in Doug Kay, Gary Gussman, Shane Stafford and Austin Wilson.
Next, the team turned its attention to the roster. Wanting to change the identity of the team, the Storm parted ways with most of the players from the 2016 season, retaining just Cortez Stubbs, Kendrick Ings, Dallas Jackson and John Brown. In order to compete at the high level the Storm set for so many years, the team built a roster that would be exciting, fast, furious and physical.
On offense the team brought back quarterback Randy Hippeard. Hippeard joined the Orlando Predators in 2015 and quickly became one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the League. An early MVP candidate in 2016, Hippeard completed 236-of-360 passes for 2,967 yards and 65 touchdowns with a QB rating of 121.36. The Storm also acquired 6-foot-6 rookie Chris Bonner. Bonner helped lead CSU-Pueblo to a NCAA Division II National Championship.
The receiving corps. has been completely revamped, with 2016 Offensive Player of the Year Joe Hills leading the charge. Hills put together a stellar year for the Jacksonville Sharks in 2016, reeling in 161 passes for 2,020 yards and 58 touchdowns. To put this in perspective, the 2016 Storm wide receivers caught a combined 63 total touchdowns. Hills enters the season with a streak of 68 consecutive games with a receiving touchdown. Joining him will be Ings, LaMark Brown, Justin Hilton and Michael Lindsey.
Keeping the quarterback upright will be of utmost importance this season. With protection being an issue in 2016, the Storm saw a need to improve and brought in center Raymond McNeil. The seven-year veteran spent the past two seasons in Jacksonville, anchoring an offensive line that gave up just 18 total sacks in two years. Joining him on the line will be University of South Florida standout, and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Jeremiah Warren, John Brown and rookie Dave Lefotu.
Defensively, the Storm revamped the entire unit with just defensive backs Cortez Stubbs and Dallas Jackson returning from the 2016 squad. The team felt that the defensive line and backfield needed an upgrade. With that said, the team remodeled its line, bringing in All-Arena defensive lineman Caesar Rayford, two-time ArenaBowl champion Antron Dillon, former NFL defensive lineman Jordan Miller, Monte Lewis, and rookies OJ Mau and Max Nacewicz. Rounding out the unit is All-Arena mac linebacker Dexter Jackson, who returns to the Storm after spending the 2016 season with the Sharks.
Joining Stubbs and Jackson in the defensive backfield is former Arizona Cardinal Damond Smith and former Hamilton Tiger-Cat Arthur Hobbs. The jack linebacker position will be played by two-time All-Arena jack linebacker Alvin Ray Jackson. Look for this unit to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. With the team only corralling eight total interceptions last season, the team will be hungry to show what it’s made of and improve on that total.
Entering this season there may be some question marks. However, the one thing the fans can be sure of is that the Storm will put a competitive team on the field. After a disappointing 2016, the Storm will look to wipe the taste out of its mouth and show that it can play with the best of them. The journey starts this weekend in Cleveland.