The Columbus Lions indoor football team is ramping up preparations for its third season in as many leagues, hoping to have the same success as the past two seasons that brought the franchise two league championships.
Training camp opens on Saturday, while the season opens on Mar. 17 against the Jacksonville Sharks, a former longtime entry in the Arena Football League.
The Lions, Sharks, and six more teams from Lehigh Valley, Pa., to Monterrey, Mexico, comprise the National Arena League, a newly-formed league this season that is a tier above the American Indoor Football league Columbus was in last season and on par with the Professional Indoor Football League the Lions played in from 2012 to 2015.
It should be made clear that the PIFL and AIF themselves dissolved over the past two seasons, not the Lions, leaving the team without a league to call home. With controls in place such as vetting procedures for team ownership, lines of credit, and other safeguards, the NAL looks to avoid the other pitfalls previous leagues have encountered.
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“The NAL as a whole, the caliber of teams, the caliber of play across the board will be unbelievable,” said Lions head coach Jason Gibson. “I already know there will be two expansion teams announced by April who will knock the socks off everyone. They’re ready to go forward. That’s what’s good about the league; we’re not waiting to see who we have by the end of October. You’ll be in by May or you’re not playing.”
As members of the AIF last season, the Lions routinely blew out teams game after game. Some examples of scores included an 86-0 win over the Georgia Firebirds in the season opener and a 100-21 drubbing of the Savannah Steam. Columbus defeated West Michigan 74-32 in the league championship game.
“People don’t want to watch us beat teams 86-0,” Gibson said. “It’s fun every once in a while, but everyone wants to see a championship game. You have to look at Game 1 (against Jacksonville); it’s like the Super Bowl right out of the gate. That’s how it should be. It kicks off the first season of the NAL, everyone will be watching. It creates excitement.”
The team has also added a touch of professionalism by signing a television contract with Cable TV of East Alabama, which will air the coach’s shows and a live, multiple-camera-angle broadcast of each home game.
As far as the composition of the Lions roster this season, the team has two big returnees in receivers Michael Reeve and Jarmon Fortson, who were among the team leaders at wide receiver the past two seasons.
“Reeve and Fortson were the key for us offensively,” Gibson said.
Quarterback Mason Espinosa, who began last season behind starting quarterback and league MVP Casey Kacz, returns to take the helm behind center. In front of him, Columbus brings back all its starters on the offensive line and also a familiar face in fullback Kendrick Perry, who was the PIFL’s career leader in rushing and a member of the Lions in 2014 and 2015.
“We’ve got our entire offensive line back: (Dion) Small, (Ryne) Holland, (Brandon) Thomas, and (Kendrick) Perry,” Gibson said. “Those are the best of the best of the best. If you have a good offensive line, you’ll be in every game.”
The team did lose receiver John Harris to the Georgia Firebirds, who are a much improved team from the one the Lions faced last year under the coaching of former Oklahoma standout wide receiver Antwane Savage. Joining Harris in Albany is fellow receiver Terrence Ebagua, who played for the Lions in 2015 and was the PIFL MVP that year.
Other former Lions are on other NAL rosters heading into the beginning of the season.
“When I look at the league, we have players on every team in this league that we’ve developed into arena players,” Gibson said. “Now they’re peppered around the whole league … it’s like a tree of Lions around the whole league. I’m not worried. We bring the players we need to bring in, we teach them how to play Lions football, and it’s been successful. I’m not going to change.”
On the defensive side, the Lions come in with some question marks at defensive back after losing career indoor football interception leader Damian Daniels and fellow standout Roshawn Marshall.
“As far as defense, we’re not going to replace Damian Daniels,” Gibson said. “If I’m looking, I’m not going to find anyone. The defense may change up a little bit, but we have Chris Smith, an (AFL) vet. We have Darius Brooks from Harris County, who has great speed. Our thing is trying to find superior athletes, and then we’ll coach them up, not necessarily guys who know the arena game. I’ve got the best DB coach in the country (Rayshun Reed); he can coach them up.”
Perhaps the biggest competition at training camp will be at mack linebacker, Gibson said, where Larry Edwards also signed with the Firebirds.
With the roster filling out for the Lions, Gibson is happy the target won’t be on his players’ backs during the first game, but rather on the Sharks, coming in as the favorite as a former AFL franchise.
“For once, there’s no pressure on us, the pressure’s all on Jacksonville,” Gibson said. “Every game the last couple of years, we were expected to go in and win big, and if we don’t, it’s a failure. Now the shoe’s on the other foot. They have to carry that pressure.”