The Columbus Lions are one week away from opening their 2013 campaign and if preseason camp is any indication, fans could be in for an exciting season.
"Camp is going better than it did last season, which is good," said Lions coach Jason Gibson, whose team kicks off its season March 10 against the Knoxville (Tenn.) Nighthawks at the Columbus Civic Center. "There's a lot of intensity and competition for jobs, but along with those things, the guys have shown up in shape, too. We put an emphasis on being in shape this year and the guys have bought into it. What we don't want is physical and mental mistakes due to fatigue and I think we had a lot of those last season. We want to be able to run from the start of the game to the finish."
The Lions -- which started training camp Feb. 18 -- had one of the Professional Indoor Football League's best offenses in 2012, averaging 60.2 points per contest. But they also had the league's worst defenses, giving up 59.4 points per game. That led to a lot of high-scoring shootouts and forced Gibson to take a long, hard look at that side of the ball during the offseason. One of the biggest changes he made was the hiring of new defensive coordinator Josh Resignalo and another was the signing of several new defensive players.
Despite a new coordinator and several new players on that side of the ball, Gibson said his defense is ahead of his offense so far in camp.
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"Our defense is ahead of our offense, but it's supposed to be," said Gibson, who is starting his seventh season as head coach of the Lions. "If your offense is running wild on your defense before the season starts, that's not a good thing. I think we're better on defense this season, but maybe it's because our offense has been that bad. I do know our defensive backs are 10 times better than they were last season. Still, we're working on our offense and the going's been tough at times, but it's getting there."
Gibson is breaking in two new signal-callers this season, as Garrett Sutphen and Marcus Jones are competing to replace Randy Hippeard, who led the PIFL with 72 touchdown passes and averaged 273.3 yards per game through the air in 2012. Whoever wins the job will have the chance to throw the ball to the high-octane receiver duo of Gerald Gales and Maurice Dupree, both of whom have re-signed with the Lions for the 2013 season.
Dupree was the PIFL's Offensive Player of the Year in 2012, catching 95 passes for 1,278 yards and 40 touchdowns. He led the league in receiving touchdowns, receiving yards and scoring (242 points). Gales is the Lions' all-time leader in catches (326), yards (4,205) and touchdowns (87). In 2012 -- his sixth stint with the Columbus franchise -- Gales caught 72 passes for 829 yards and 19 touchdowns. The yardage and touchdown totals were both good for fourth among PIFL wideouts.
"We've got two of our top three receivers back and most of our offensive linemen returning as well," said Gibson. "The biggest positions we have to fill right now are at center and fullback."
The Lions have 26 players currently in camp and have to be at the PIFL roster limit of 27 on Wednesday, but that doesn't mean the players who are in camp have already secured roster spots.
"(Arena Football League) camps are going to start cutting people next week," said Gibson, who has several players from the 2012 Lions roster competing for jobs in AFL camps. "I've already been cutting some players and left some spots open because I didn't want to have to make room for any AFL guys that we wanted to bring in."
Kickoff for the Lions' season opener at the Civic Center -- nicknamed "The Jungle" by the team -- is scheduled for 4 p.m. Following the game against Knoxville, Columbus hits the road for three straight road contests. Throw in two bye weeks and the Lions won't be home again until April 20, when they host the Richmond (Va.) Raiders.
Columbus Lions 2013 Schedule
March 10 Knoxville 4 p.m.
March 16 at Albany 7:30 p.m.
April 6 at Alabama 8 p.m.
April 13 at Louisiana 8 p.m.
April 20 Richmond 7:30 p.m.
April 27 Louisiana 7:30 p.m.
May 5 at Lehigh Valley 4 p.m.
May 18 Alabama 7:30 p.m.
May 25 at Richmond 7:30 p.m.
June 2 Lehigh Valley 4 p.m.
June 8 Albany 7:30 p.m.
June 22 at Albany 7 p.m.