Rattlers face questions as new season kicks off
When the Arizona Rattlers take the field this Friday night at Moda Center against the Portland Steel, the five-time AFL champs will have more questions coming out of training camp than they have faced over their past half-decade of dominance.
How will new additions to the roster fit in with other important players retiring or moving on? Will the team run roughshod over this watered-down version of the league, filled with only eight teams that will all make the postseason no matter what the won-loss record says?
Who will take the defunct San Jose SaberCats' spot as the Rattlers' biggest rival? And how will the team respond to being ushered out of the 2015 playoffs due to a blown officiating call? Will it fuel them to yet another title?
Rattler Nation is yearning to get the season going after the way the last campaign ended, something that left a really bad taste. We have all seen it over and over — Reggie Gray clearly fumbling the ball, Arizona clearly recovering to secure another Arena Bowl berth. But in the San Jose SaberCats' backyard, referee Reggie Smith cluelessly watched the monitor then handed the now-extinct Cats a golden ticket to the championship game where they easily put another Foster Trophy on the mantle.
I don't even like to think about it. Months later, it is still very frustrating.
Even though they aren't talking about it, I feel like many of the Rattlers' veterans are still fuming that they were denied a chance at a fourth-straight title. It will be interesting to see if Arizona takes out those frustrations as the 2016 season moves along.
The Rattlers held training camp in a new location this year — in Maricopa hosted by the Ak-Chin Indian Community. For the first time in their history, the Rattlers had regulation arena football goal posts on their practice field.
“We had a great off-season,” Head Coach Kevin Guy told the Arizona Republic. “Guys came to camp in shape and they were ready to go both physically and mentally. Nick (Davila) was making sure guys were working out on their own time and that set the tone for how they came into training camp.”
And while many Arizona fans weren't shedding tears that the SaberCats are long gone, the announcement by All-Arena defensive back Jeremy Kellem that he was leaving arena football to pursue other interests came as quite a shock. Marquis Floyd then announced his retirement. The Rattlers will have a very different look in their 2016 secondary.
Besides quarterback Nick Davila, Kellem, in my view, was Arizona's most important player and will be difficult to replace.
You don't get named AFL Defensive Back of the Year for no reason. He could play any spot back there at an elite level and he was a ballhawk.
Trying to take up the slack will be veterans Arkeith Brown and Bubba Chapman. Chapman was an important part of the Rattlers' 2014 title run. Also adding DB depth will be rookie Jimmy Legree, a former Arizona Cardinal.
On the defensive line, Tyre Glasper, the Rattlers all-time leader in sacks, returns after having the best season of his career (11 sacks, 1 interception). Nose tackle Anttaj Hawthorne and lineman Cliff Dukes are also back. Arizona also added former All-Arena defensive end Luis Vasquez.
Talented returner/receiver/linebacker A.J. Cruz and speedy pass rusher Mike McAdoo are both now playing in the NFL.
As Kellem and Floyd leave the team, another former Rattler returns.
Maurice Purify was re-signed to bolster an already elite group of receivers. Following three stellar years in the desert, Purify's relationship with Arizona soured and he eventually left the squad. As if that wasn't tough enough, the lanky pass catcher then signed with bitter rival San Jose and helped them beat the Rattlers in last year's playoffs.
While some fans branded Purify a “traitor,” I bet a few touchdowns in 2016 will make those fans forget he ever wore green and gold.
“I've got some game left in me,” Purify told the Republic. “Coach Guy told me if I ever wanted to come home, I had a place waiting. So I took him up on his offer.”
Davila is quite simply the best in the business. Quickly moving up the charts of the best ever to play the arena game, Davila was already laser focused when he spoke at the team's fan fest on March 26.
“For me, it is about being productive every single play and getting it right the first 16 weeks so we are rolling going into the playoffs,” the franchise quarterback said.
The “Latin Laser” is coming off another solid year where he threw for 3,500 yards and 87 touchdowns despite missing several weeks due to injury.
Protecting Davila will be offensive linemen Joe Gibbs, Hayworth Hicks and Lamar Mady. The Rattlers also traded for the veteran lineman Jordan Mudge.
The wide receiving corps is loaded with talent and formidable from top to bottom. Besides Purify, Rod Windsor returns as does Chase Deadder and do-it-all Kerry Reed. Arizona also picked up speedy wideout Mike Washington to add to their depth.
Mykel Benson will again man the fullback spot after rushing for 286 yards (second best single-season in Rattlers history) and 17 touchdowns in 2015. Alex Zendejas will handle the kicking duties.
On the coaching side, former Rattler Siaha Burley, a standout receiver in 2004-05, 2008 and 2010, is now the Arizona offensive coordinator and director of football operations.
They say to “play good you've got to look good.” At their fan fest March 26, the Rattlers unveiled their new Under Armour uniforms. They have a very clean look although some fans think the new threads come off a bit “too plain.” Gone is the faux “snakeskin” look on the shoulders and the teal color has been dialed back as well.
The home uniforms are predominantly black with copper trim while the road gear is ice white. The jerseys and pants can also be interchanged for a black/white look.
There are three helmets to choose from — black, white and copper.
There are also a few rule changes to look at as we begin the 2016 season. With only eight teams remaining in the league, the schedule has been pared down from 18 to 16 regular season games.
Anytime the ball carrier loses his helmet during the play, the play will be shut down immediately with the ball being spotted at the point where the helmet came off the player. On onside kick attempts, both teams will be allowed to initiate blocks immediately after the ball is kicked.
Giving themselves less chance to miss game-changing calls, the league announced there will no longer be an “officials’ review” within the last minute of each half during nationally televised games. Challenges for all games will be controlled by the head coaches, even inside the final minute. Each team gets two challenges during regulation time. If a challenge is successful on both instances, the team will earn a third challenge.
Let's hope no one's season comes down to instant replay. As the Rattlers found out last year in the “Stockton screwjob,” one wrong call and nothing feels right.