Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Storm

Storm opens Arena Football season Friday vs. New Orleans

TAMPA —A season that ends with a playoff appearance rarely is considered disappointing. But looking back on the 2013 Tampa Bay Storm, it would be hard to categorize it any other way.

"The way things ended left a very sour taste in our mouth," defensive back Jean Fanor said.

That's because after starting the Arena Football League season 7-4, the team dropped eight in a row, including a 69-62 loss to Jacksonville in the first round of the playoffs. The Storm led 34-13 in the third quarter against the Sharks, who scored two touchdowns in the final eight seconds to cap the comeback.

Two days later, third-year coach Dave Ewart was fired, signaling the beginning of a number of changes to come.

As the season kicks off at 7:30 tonight against New Orleans at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, here's a look at what else is new with the five-time AFL champs:

New man in charge: Former Storm great Lawrence Samuels, who will be inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in April, takes over as head coach after two seasons as an assistant.

"I think we're a lot further along than where we were last year at this time," Samuels, 43, said. "We've made a lot of upgrades at all positions."

Locals dot roster: The most familiar addition for area fans is Stephen Garcia. The former Jefferson and South Carolina quarterback played for Montreal of the Canadian Football League in 2012 before sitting out the 2013 season.

"It's awesome (to be back home)," Garcia, 26, said. "It's a dream come true, and I'm really appreciative the Storm gave me this opportunity to continue my football aspirations."

Samuels has not tipped his hand regarding whether Garcia or incumbent Randy Hippeard will start. Hippeard played the first half of a preseason game against Jacksonville and Garcia played the second half. Hippeard is listed as the starter on the depth chart that appears on the team website.

Another name that will grab fans' attention is receiver Amarri Jackson. The former USF standout had 202 receptions for 2,631 yards and 55 touchdowns while with the Storm from 2011-12. He joins a receiving corps that features first-team All-Arena Joe Hills, who set franchise records for receptions (133), receiving yards (1,861), receiving touchdowns (42) and points (262) last season.

Bulking up: The team bolstered its offensive line, bringing in Raymond McNeil, considered one of the top linemen in the league. It also added Mario Henderson (6 feet 7, 330 pounds) and Carl Johnson (6-5, 255) up front.

"That was one of our biggest concerns coming into the year, and I think we've done a good job addressing it," Samuels said.

Addressing a need: Richard Clebert, who played at USF and with the Storm in 2011, returns along the defensive line. Newcomers Uriah Grant (Mississippi, 6-1, 295) and Jammie Kirlew (Indiana, 6-2, 250) will be counted on along with Clebert to help a pass rush that ranked second worst in the league in sacks last season.