Unlike last year, the Tampa Bay Storm will take the field on opening night with an experienced roster. 21 players on the 24-man roster have AFL experience while 12 of those veterans played for Tampa Bay in 2015 when the team finished with a 7-11 record.
Lawrence Samuels, a Storm legend and AFL Hall of Fame inductee, is entering his third season as the team’s head coach. As training camp closed last week, he touted the team’s foundation of talent, but acknowledged some changes that have been made to address the giant elephant in the room: the team is 15-21 in the last two years and hasn’t made a playoff appearance since 2013.
“We’ve changed the culture around here a lot,” Samuels said. “The guys are really buying in to what we’re selling to them.”
With the changes the league underwent in the offseason, every team in the now eight-team league will make the 2016 postseason. Especially as it celebrates its 25th season in Tampa Bay, a franchise with a rich history of success like the Storm knows making the playoffs isn’t enough.
“[I’m] just trying to bring a championship back here,” wide receiver T.T. Toliver said.
Toliver, who is entering his 14th season in the league, will lead a talented wide receiving corps that promises to the Storm’s biggest strength.
“T.T. Toliver is a special, special guy. He’s like an extra coach on the field,” said Samuels. “He brings so much to this team with his leadership and his ability to make plays.”
Toliver is joined by last year’s rookie standouts Julius Gregory and Phillip Barnett. The trio combined for 2,911 receiving yards and 71 touchdowns a year ago.
“Coming over here with Gregory and the experience of T.T., it’s been incredible,” quarterback Adam Kennedy said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with it. Overall, I think we’re going to be fun to watch this year.”
Kennedy, who comes to Tampa Bay from the now defunct New Orleans VooDoo, is the frontrunner to start under center in the Storm’s season opener on Friday night. He has been competing throughout camp with rookie Jonathan Bane out of Dakota Wesleyan. As of last week, a starter hadn’t been named.
“Both quarterbacks bring a lot to the table. It’s still a competition,” Samuels said at the team’s media day last week.
The defense will feature returners such as James Harrell, Rick-J Hill and Everett Dawkins, as well as newcomer Dominie Pittman, who stood out to Samuels during training camp. The unit will try to find some consistency this season after allowing as few as 13 points and as many as 71 a year ago.
With all the question marks surrounding the 2016 team, the Storm will rely heavily on the group of receivers that shined last year in an otherwise disappointing season. With all the talent in the position group, even an AFL legend like Toliver questions his job security.
“It scares me, to be honest with you,” Toliver said. “I’m like ‘dang, do I have a job?’ It’s just showing that everybody’s out here competing and working hard.”
This year’s schedule has the Storm leaving the state of Florida just five times, two of which will come in the first three weeks of the season. The full 16-game slate can be seen here.
Tampa Bay opens up the season on Friday at Amalie Arena against the Orlando Predators in the AFL’s 3,000th game. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.