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Returning with a big impact

They liked his athleticism. They loved his speed. They were thrilled with the recommendation he received from the St. Louis Rams.

Storm coaches Tim Marcum and Lary Kuharich thought they had something special when they watched Antoine Toliver work out last month.

But they didn't realize how special.

"I'm raw right now," Toliver said. "Just wait until I learn the game."

If his performance in last week's 67-61 victory against Georgia is any indication, the first-year wide receiver/defensive back is catching on quickly.

Toliver set Storm records with 274 kick-return yards, including touchdowns of 54 and 55 yards, and 317 combined return yards. He also had seven tackles and two pass breakups.

"He's learning," Marcum said. "He's just a pup. But he's got great speed _ not good speed, but great speed _ and speed kills. That's the key to his success."

Toliver, 25, did not play major-college football and had not played defense since high school. But he was one of the keys to Tampa Bay's turnaround, a 3-1 finish that helped the Storm secure a playoff spot on the final day of the Arena Football League regular season.

How he got to Tampa Bay is a story in itself.

Toliver, nicknamed "T.T." _ for 'Toine Toliver _ by his mother, Mary, played football and basketball at Daytona Beach Mainland. A point guard, he teamed with Toronto Raptors standout Vince Carter on the 1996 state championship basketball team.

"He was the Corvette; I was the driver," Toliver said. "We just tried to drive our way to the state championship."

Toliver continued to play both sports at Hinds (Miss.) Community College, where he was a junior college All-American at quarterback. After a short stint in the Canadian Football League, he enrolled at Bethune-Cookman, where he played basketball.

He signed with the Rams as a free agent and spent the past two seasons on the practice squad.

Storm player personnel director Mitch Matuska discovered Toliver through a contact with the Atlanta Falcons, who were interested in him. Marcum contacted Rams secondary coach Carlos Mainord, who also gave Toliver high marks.

"We knew that if he was with the Rams with their receiving corps, he must have some ability," Matuska said.

The Storm signed Toliver on June 13 and couldn't be happier. He has a team-leading two interceptions and 33.5 tackles _ third-most on the team _ in five games. He averaged 29.2 yards on 12 kick returns and 18.3 on three field goal returns.

"He's an impact player," Matuska said. "You look for those guys that can change the complexion of a game through their playmaking abilities, and that's what he can do."

His days in the AFL might be numbered.

"My goal is to get back to the NFL but also to show everybody if you're not drafted No. 1, you can still go out there and prove to everybody that you can be a good football player," Toliver said.

The Storm has Toliver's Arena League rights for two more seasons, but he's exempt to leave for the NFL or NFL Europe.

Matuska said it's a possibility the team has considered.

"There's every bit of likelihood that he could jump back into the NFL with those abilities," he said.

TONIGHT: STORM AT LOS ANGELES

RECORDS: Tampa Bay 6-8, Los Angeles 8-6.

COACHES: Tampa Bay _ Tim Marcum (142-50, 14th season); Los Angeles _ Ed Hodgkiss (first season).

NOTES: Tampa Bay is in the playoffs for a record 12th consecutive season. Los Angeles qualified for the first time in its three seasons. If the Storm wins, it plays next weekend at top-seeded San Jose. The Avengers defeated the Storm 38-24 on May

17 in Los Angeles. The Storm is 16-7 in the playoffs but 1-4 in its past five postseason games. It hopes to become the first sub-.500 team to win a playoff game. The L.A. offense ranks fourth in the league with 275.6 yards a game. Quarterback Tony Graziani passed for 3,630 yards (third-most in the league) and 67 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

Compiled by Frank Pastor.

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