Coming off their championship season last year in the Professional Indoor Football League, the Columbus Lions will open full training camp Wednesday, one week after the team opened a mini-camp for quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs.
Offensive and defensive linemen will join the skill players for full camp with the vast majority of camp practices taking place at Garrett-Harrison Stadium.
Lions coach Jason Gibson says the team enjoys being able to play on the artificial turf surface that Garrett-Harrison offers instead of playing on grass for practice.
“It's a first-class facility. Phenix City does it right,” Gibson said. “It's a good selling point. It was huge for us last year. I talked to a lot of the players, and between having less injuries (practicing on turf) and practicing on the same surface we play on, it was big. Practice on grass does us no good.”
Gibson also uses the partnership with Phenix City as an opportunity for the team to give back and give residents there the feeling that the Lions are not just Columbus’ team.
“One of the things we do with Phenix City is we donate tickets and make player appearances at the Boys and Girls Clubs,” Gibson said. “That was part of the partnership. We've done stuff with Glenwood and Central, too. I want to people to know that we support them just as much. I think it's good that our organization supports the community on both sides of the river.”
The training camp roster, currently at 35 players, must be pared down to 27 prior to the Lions’ first game of the American Indoor Football season, set for March 20 at 4 p.m. against the Georgia (Albany) Firebirds at the Columbus Civic Center.
“Mini-camp was a good opportunity to see guys and see whether or not we wanted to bring them into our full camp,” Gibson said.
At defensive back, a position Gibson said last week would be the toughest battle of the mini camp, players are jostling for a limited number of spots on the Lions roster. Two of those include veteran returnees Damian Daniels, who was part of both Lions championship teams last year and in 2010 in the Southern Indoor Football League, and Roshawn Marshall. Other newcomers, including Tracy Wilson, who brings two years of National Football League experience, are vying for a spot.
“Tracy Wilson fits what we're looking for size, speed, ability, personality, two years in the NFL; all that showed on the field,” said Gibson said. “They all have their up days and down days. (The newcomers are) learning the angles, learning the hashes, learning how to use the wall. The athletic ability is there. They're starting to really get after the offense in mini-camp.”
Gibson was especially pleased with the performance of his wide receivers in the mini camp. Three receivers – John Harris, Jarmon Fortson, and Michael Reeve – return to the team from last season.
“On the offensive side, they all stood out,” Gibson said. “Jarmon Fortson lost 10 pounds and is moving all over the field now. Michael Reeve is as good as we've seen from a big guy. He's going to be a household name. There's no doubt about it, he's tough. John Harris is in the best shape of his life. Kyle Griswould really turned some heads, as did Byron Dickerson. There's a good fight there.”
The eye-popping statistic for the Lions, however, is that five players entered camp with experience in the NFL. Gibson attributes that to the reputation the team has built in its 10 seasons of existence.
“We're going to treat them right. That's no secret,” Gibson said. “It's not just players calling now, their agents are too. The agents are calling and telling players to come to Columbus. That's the best marketing you can get.”
Training camp will only become more intense with linemen added to the mix. Gibson welcomes the challenge and says linemen are just as if not more valuable than the skill players he has seen and evaluated for a week.
“The battle will be at the ‘D’ line, because everyone knows the defensive line wins football games,” Gibson said. “We need to find four guys who can bring pressure play after play after play.”