TAMPA — Storm coach Dave Ewart is already planning for next season.
Even though the 2011 campaign just ended Saturday, he's lining up visits to upcoming NFL training camps; it's never too early to get a jump on potential players.
A far cry from the this past offseason.
"We didn't have much time to get ready," Ewart said.
That's because Ewart, a former assistant, replaced the AFL's all-time winningest coach just days before the start of the season when Tim Marcum resigned.
"We weren't fully prepared, but how could you be when you find out two or three days before camp?" Ewart said. "At times it was overwhelming."
And predictably, the five-time AFL champion stumbled out of the gate, losing six of its first eight and finishing the season 7-11. It was a long way from a team one year removed from an ArenaBowl loss to Spokane.
"The offseason sets up the season, and we had trouble getting our footing," Ewart said. "Plus we were missing some pretty big guys (from last year)."
The most notable absence was quarterback Brett Dietz, an All-AFL second-teamer in 2010. Mike Potts, who started the season, was released after the third week. Former USF quarterback Grant Gregory was next up and proved inconsistent. Brian Zbydniewski then came in and showed flashes but was also erratic. Danny Southwick got a start late in the season and struggled.
"It's a quarterback league, and we went through five of them," Ewart said. "We never had consistency at the position."
Tampa Bay did get a nice spark from former USF standout Matt Grothe, who came on in relief in a 58-40 loss to Georgia then led the Storm to a last-second win against San Jose in last week's season finale.
"Matt showed us some good things," Ewart said. "He could be the guy, I don't know. Matt and Brian are going to compete (next year), but we're still looking."
Tampa Bay's biggest strength came from a defensive front that set an AFL record with 40 sacks. Linebacker Cliff Dukes led the league in sacks (121/2) and tackles for loss (16). Nose guard Tim McGill finished with nine sacks while USF product Jarriett Buie recorded 61/2 and Jermaine Smith six. The pressure up front helped Tampa Bay's secondary surrender a league-best 245.4 yards per game.
Another former USF player, receiver Amarri Jackson, emerged as the go-to receiver down the stretch, setting team rookie records for catches (125), yards (1,619) and touchdowns (35).
Despite the Storm's up-and-down season, fans' hopes were buoyed when former Bucs linebackers Derrick Brooks and Jeff Gooch were named team president and vice president, respectively, in April. The Storm also finished second in the league in attendance, averaging 10,778.
"We have some good people in place and some things to build on," Ewart said, "but there's still a lot of work to do. We're going to get better."