By Spencer Lee
CLEVELAND — When the Cleveland Gladiators open the 30th season of the Arena Football League next Saturday, April 8th, at Quicken Loans Arena, fans will see some of the best AFL players of the last few years donning the sword and shield on their helmets, thanks to some monster offseason acquisitions: A future Hall of Fame cornerback; the reigning AFL Playmaker of the Year; five All-Arena defensive players; and a receiving corps with 440 career receiving touchdowns.
With the Arena Football League contracting from eight teams to five for 2017, fewer jobs are available, so the talent level on all of the rosters will be the highest the league has ever seen. Translation: Every game will be a battle of top teams.
“While I’ve been playing, this might be the best year of Arena Football,” said newly acquired Jack linebacker Terence Moore, who received All-Arena honors with Orlando in 2015. “I love when the best is out there because that’s how you measure yourself… To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”
The most heralded of the new Gladiators is cornerback Rayshaun Kizer, a Cleveland native who will be coming home to play for the first time. The five-time All-Arena selection whom many coaches believe will be a future Hall of Famer says fans will get their money’s worth in 2017.
“There shouldn’t be any blowouts this year because every team is pretty much even,” Kizer said. “You [fans] should expect a good show pretty much from start to finish and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Gladiators began training camp with 35 players, as they do every season. But in order to field a 25-man roster, some major names had to be cut from the list, including All-Arena defensive back Alvin Ray Jackson and Cleveland’s starting quarterback from 2016, Arvell Nelson.
Returning wide receiver Collin Taylor, the reigning Al Lucas Hero Award winner who currently holds the Gladiators’ franchise record of 32 consecutive regular season games with a touchdown reception, said he is amazed at the talent level on both sides of the ball.
“It’s basically an All-Star team,” Taylor said. “That is really exciting because not only do I get to go against these guys every day, and they make me into the best receiver I can be, but I also know these guys, when they’re wearing the Cleveland Gladiators jersey playing against other teams, I know how [great] their production is going to be.”
And leading the Gladiators into battle this year is new head coach Ron Selesky, who served four previous seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator. A new regime leads to new ideas, including Selesky’s plan for 2017. In the past, Cleveland has had their best years combining veterans at key positions with talented rookies who are new to the game. This mindset reached ultimate heights in 2014 when the team went 19-2, winning the American Conference Championship and appearing in the ArenaBowl.
But this season, with veterans at every position, Selesky hasn’t needed to slow down the teaching process for players new to the arena game. Since Day One, he has accelerated training camp with an intensity and a focus never before seen in Gladiators camp.
“I think this year, with the rosters being so experienced and even, I think you have to be ready to come out of the gate fast,” Selesky said. “And then you have to be able to gauge your team week in and week out so you can keep playing at that level.”
In Arena Football, offense always has the advantage, and the area with the most optimism is the receiving corps. Taylor returns for his fourth season with the team, as do second-year wideouts Quentin Sims, who caught 27 touchdowns in 13 games last year, and Devin Wilson, who caught nine touchdowns in seven games.
But the Gladiators also added to the aresenal one of the most dynamic players in the league in receiver Brandon Thompkins, the reigning AFL Playmaker of the Year who had 6,770 all-purpose yards and 79 total touchdowns the last two seasons in Orlando, and 10-year veteran Larry Brackins, who has caught 170 career touchdowns.
“Any [receiver] on this team is really a [No.] 1 [receiver] or could be a starter on any team,” said Shane Boyd, a newly acquired five-year veteran quarterback with three playoff appearances. “When I drop back, it’s not like I have to go to one person or zone in on one person. All I got to do is drop back, read the coverage and know whoever I get the ball to, that person has the chance to take it the entire way.”
They are loaded on defense and loaded on offense. Needless to say, the Gladiators’ expectations are the highest they have ever been. To put it simply, Taylor added, “We’re looking to score a ton of points, and we’re looking to get a ton of stops.”
With this caliber of talent, it will be a fun AFL season to watch.