TAMPA — Today couldn't come soon enough for Lawrence Samuels.
It was eight months ago, nearly to the day, when the Arena Football Hall of Famer and former Storm great saw his first year as head coach come to a disappointing end with a 56-49 home loss to Cleveland. A win would have locked up a postseason berth. Instead, the Storm endured its fourth straight losing season.
Tonight, the Gladiators return.
"I'm more than anxious to get this going," Samuels said. "We're ready."
Tampa Bay and Cleveland kick off the 28th AFL season when the Storm hosts the Gladiators at 7:30 p.m. at the Amalie Arena.
"I think we're a lot further along at this point than we were last year," Samuels said. "I feel great about this year and this team."
While Samuels is optimistic, fans will likely need to keep a program handy the first few weeks to identify all the new players. Gone are familiar names like Amarri Jackson, Joe Hills, Randy Hippeard and Michael Lindsey. In fact, the Storm return just nine players from the 2014 roster.
"There was a time when nobody knew who Joe and the rest were," Samuels said. "Now people don't know who these (new) guys are, but they'll be the next stars for the Tampa Bay Storm, the way I see it."
No position in the Arena game is more crucial than quarterback, and 28-year-old Jason Boltus will be under center tonight, replacing Hippeard. Boltus, who threw for 2,711 yards and 54 touchdowns last year for Orlando, was the prize catch in free agency for Tampa Bay.
"I knew Coach Samuels liked me from talking to him after our games last year," said Boltus, who twice beat the Storm with Orlando in 2014. "I felt this is was the best fit for me and I think we have a ton of talent here."
Boltus will be working with a host of new receivers. The Storm signed Jarvis Williams, Julius Gregory and Phillip Barnett, all of whom top 6 feet 4. Tampa Bay also signed versatile net man Kendrick Ings and brought back veteran T.T. Toliver, who is just 23 catches shy of 1,000 career catches.
"When you're 6 foot 5, 6 foot 6, you're kind of always open," Boltus said. "It's very comforting to know that when you get in trouble, you can throw it up to them and have them make a play. It's a bonus for me."
The Storm's other big free agent pickup was Alfred Phillips, who will team with local prep stars James Harrell (Plant. Jesuit) and newcomer Nick Addison (Spoto) in the defensive backfield.
"It's going to be a lot of love," Addison said of what he expects it to be like playing in his hometown. "Tampa has always showed me love. And I love Tampa. I did my thing here in high school; now it's time to get it done out here with the Storm."
In addition to Addison and Harrell, the Storm will also feature defensive linemen and USF products Richard Clebert and Julius Forte.
"The first game is tough for anybody new to this league because of the speed of the game," Samuels said. "I can't wait to see how these guys respond in week one."