2015 Season Preview: Portland Thunder
Hello to all you football fans out there and welcome to another year of AFL football. The league has undergone its seemingly inevitable off-season changes, but all-in-all everything seems to be lining up for another great season of hard hitting action.
As for the sophomore season of the young Portland franchise? Well, there is not much to report really… kinda dull… sort of boring, hum drum.
NOTE: can someone tell me how to spell that sound an old vinyl album makes when you scratch a phonograph needle across it abruptly?
Never mind, just insert your own “car screeching to a halt” sound effect here and we will move on.
The off-season for the Portland Thunder has been a bit turbulent, shall we say? It started with the firing of popular first-year head coach Matthew Sauk and has become more and more convoluted with every passing week. Veterans of this league (both players and writers) tell me that this is life in the AFL, but for a first-time writer in this league, it’s a bit disconcerting.
The good news is that what started this stressful period, the release of a known and understood coach, ended with the hiring of a calm, experienced and savvy Mike Hohensee. “Coach Ho,” as he is called by those close to him, has a reputation for picking solid rosters, and so with such an important hiring in the bank, perhaps the Rose City has another year of good football to look forward to after all.
2014 in Review
The Thunder, in their inaugural season, came out of the gate slowly with five straight losses. However, there was no denying the rookie-heavy team was both hard-hitting and entertaining, and the Thunder snuck up on some veteran teams. By the time Portland had returned from a swing through Florida, they had traded for a new starting QB, won two in a row, lost that same new signal caller to injury and, as it happened, found out who they were.
The mix of a new franchise, full of mostly rookie players, and a first-time head coach led to some on-field missteps but also lent itself to an aggressive devil may care identity. While the schedule was to yield only three more wins, an attitude developed that clearly said, “Yeah, we are the new guys, and we’ve got nothing to lose.”
Enthusiasm peaked, the team gelled and lo and behold, Sauk’s squad knocked off the Los Angeles KISS to secure the final playoff spot in the National Conference. Best of all, and to the delight of a growing fan base, apparently no one informed the new Rose City ruffians that they were supposed to respectfully lay down for the all-powerful Arizona Rattlers. The Thunder battled the eventual five-time champs to within 14 seconds of an earth shattering upset.
Then, on September 23rd, Sauk was fired.
As stated above, new Head coach Mike Hohensee takes the reigns’ in 2015. Hohensee sports an AFL title ring, and he has the singular distinction of having thrown the first TD pass in league history. With Coach Ho comes a combined 70 years of football experience in Defensive Coordinator Ernesto Purnsley, Special teams coach Lee Johnson and offensive and defensive line coach Clay Harrell. Not a bad start.
Highlights in player acquisitions include twin wide outs Perez Ashford and Martel Moore from Northern Illinois University who post resumes that include time with four NFL teams. To continue with the influx of new receivers the Thunder acquired 6-foot-4, 220-pound V’Keon Lacey from the Philadelphia Soul. Lacey caught 12 touchdowns last season and averaged 11 yards per reception.
Perhaps most indicative of Hohensee's ability to find value in places others may not is the Thunder’s acquisition of 2012 All-Arena wide receiver Aaron Lesue. All Lesue did in his last full season (2012) was snatch an AFL-record 64 touchdowns in the regular season and playoffs combined. Lesue’ appeared in only four games last year due to an injury sustained while playing for the Pittsburgh Power. Cha-Ching.
The list of players who will not be back with the Thunder this season makes the list of newcomers all the more important. First, stellar DB Eric Crocker signed with the San Jose SaberCats. To make matters worse, the Portland offensive line will see plenty of Man ‘O’ Steel Antron Dillon this year, but not on the practice field. Dillon signed as a free agent with the KISS. Need I say more?
Gone to the NFL are starters Douglas McNeil III (WR Seattle) and Varmah Sonie (DB Cleveland), and to the CFL Eric Rodgers who, by the way, had 108 yards receiving in the Grey Cup. Notable injuries include OL/DL stalwart Brandon Lockhart and Center Max-Jean Gilles who are on the PUP list. Wide out Alvance Robinson is listed as IR.
The 2015 season will be a success if...
Success this year for the Thunder comes in two colors, and one of them is green. Needless to say, the still-new team needs to build on the energy that the on-field product generated last season and combine it with a bit better record. However, as we saw last year, the Thunder can sneak up on just about anyone, and the Rattlers nearly learned that fact to their great sorrow. High attendance should be expected early on, and hopefully, the domino effect takes over from there. Winning equates to fan excitement and vice versa in a nice profitable catch-22.
The other color is purple - as in bruises. The Thunder, win or lose last season, left most teams nursing some pretty serious headaches postgame, and that sort of hard hitting action feeds right back into the top of this section. Defensive line train-wreck-on-a-mission Donte Paige-Moss needs to lead the hair-on-fire style again this season. With crushing exclamation points inserted by one Bryce Peila, the Thunder may just have the formula for successful mayhem.
Portland's 2015 MVP will be...
It’s easy to go QB here, and that is a solid choice as the Thunder return wily veteran, Kyle Rowley. Rowley came alive late in the season last year after returning from an injury and he, along with a solid receiving group led the charge. I look for the same from Rowley in 2015, and he’s my preseason choice for MVP.
However, I do wonder where former Oregon Ducks signal-caller, Darron Thomas will fit in. Thomas has been a true pro so far learning the game and being a great teammate according to many players, and I just can’t help think some sort of breakout is on the way.
In 2015 the Thunder will win…
10 games. The schedule lines up nicely for Hohensee's team with five games against first or second-year squads. Additionally, a pair of games with Florida teams that have either lost key components or are not yet at championship level should yield a win or more. I also will take a flier on two wins out of three in tilts with the Spokane Shock and some small amount of breakout success against the Rattlers and SaberCats. I look to an upgraded (or at least rebuilt) receiving corps to lead the way and continued defensive misbehavior to be the hallmarks of an even more dangerous Thunder squad in 2015.