The Columbus Lions will begin their 2018 campaign in the NAL on Friday as they will host the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks at 7:30 at the Columbus Civic Center in a battle between 2017’s conference semifinalists.
However, this is a rematch in team names only as both the Lions and the Steelhawks have significant roster changes from last year from the 2017 playoff teams.
Gone from the Lions is 2017 Offensive player of the year, Michael Reeve. Reeve led the league in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. Reeve was instrumental in leading the Lions on the offensive side of the ball as Columbus led the league in total offense, passing yardage and touchdowns.
Gone from the Steelhawks is quarterback Warren Smith. He was the individual leader in passing yardage, touchdowns and total offense and was the second leading ground gainer on the 2017 squad. In addition, his 56 touchdown passes set a new all-time record for Lehigh Valley in a single season. Add to the changes are all the Steelhawk receivers but one are no longer on the roster. Lehigh Valley did resign in the last week their all-time leading receiver in yardage and catches, Brandon Renford and he is expected to be the Steelhawks No. 1 passing target.
That’s a lot of offense for both teams not on the field for the new season.
Because of the changes Lion Coach Jason Gibson points out that,” Our defense is ahead of our offense. We have a lot of guys getting after the ball and are long and athletic.”
The offense got even stronger as the Lions picked up former Oklahoma player and Lion Durron Neal, who is expected to step right in and help on the offensive side of the ball.
“I am excited to see what I have for both offense and defense,” Gibson said of the opener.
Although Reeve is gone, the Lions do have returning at quarterback, Mason Espinosa, who was the starter the second half of the season. Backing Espinosa up is Auburn grad Jeremy Johnson, who could see action against Lehigh Valley as well.
Both quarterbacks have experience at receiver with veterans Jarmon Fortson and Triston Purifoy back in the fold. Both were in the top five in the league in receiving and were right behind Reeve in catches and yardage.
“It will take time for the offense to hit on all cylinders,” said Gibson. “But you don’t know what you have until you are on the field.”
While Gibson is a veteran of the arena league play, the Steelhawks will have a new coach at the helm, Bob Kohler. Kohler was on the staff the past three years and has moved up to the head spot.
One of the most unique moves Kohler made to his staff was the hiring of Lori Locust, the only female coach in Arena football. Locust was a semi-pro female player that had a career-ending injury and moved to coaching where she had seven years experience before coming to Lehigh Valley. She coaches on defense and special teams.
Since Smith left, the Steelhawks have only two quarterbacks on their roster. Caleb Walton has been listed since training camp began and with the loss of Smith, Lehigh Valley added 6-5 Seth Higgins from Morgan State.
“I think Walton will start for them but Higgins could also play,” said Gibson of his Friday opponents.
The Steelhawks also added Undra Hendrix from the High Country Grizzlies. Hendrix scored 12 rushing touchdowns in 2017.
“We know Hendrix and are aware of what he can do. We held him in check the last time he played against us,” reported Gibson of the Steelhawk pickup.
At fullback the Lions will counter with two rookies, Robert Caldwell and Quayvon Hicks. Georgia football fans would recognize Hicks’ name as he was the lead back for the Bulldogs’ Todd Gurley during his collegiate days.