We’re just over a month away from the start of training camp, so let’s see how things stand in the Kingdom. First up: the Defense.
As of today, the River Kings have announced the signing of 22 players, or just over half of the 40-man training camp roster. 13 of them play defense at least part time, and almost all of them have at least some IFL experience. New defensive coordinator Trae Ivory emphasizes taking away his opponent’s “bread and butter,” so defenders in his system need to be smart as well as physical. Here’s how they break down by position group.
Defensive Line: Currently the strongest group, the D-line features tough, experienced playmakers. Desmond Raiford (6’2″, 260) brings seven years of indoor experience to Cedar Rapids, including stints with the Iowa Barnstormers and the Tucson Sugar Skulls. He has 35 career sacks, notching four last year in just six games. He’s a disruptive, head’s-up player, with the quickness to get around heftier O-linemen and the awareness to help contain a running quarterback.
Tre Harlan (6’5″, 305) is an indoor veteran who reunites with Head Coach Victor Mann for the 2020 season. He’s a high-effort player who can wreak havoc in the backfield.
They’re joined by Walter “Surge” Walker (6’3″, 295) and Sam Mabany (6’8″, 270), both of whom played for Cedar Rapids last year. Mabany, especially, is raw (he grew up in the Sudan) but both are talented, high-motor players. Walker can compress the pocket while Mabany uses his length to set the edge.
This is a veteran bunch with lots of physical talent, but currently they’re a little light. A big, nasty, space-eating tackle who can really push the pocket would be a nice complement to what’s already an above-average group. Another hefty tackle that can open it up outside for Raiford and Mabany could make this an elite unit.
Linebacker is currently the weakest position group, with only two signings: Tristian Green and La’More Wise. Green (6′, 235) is a speedy ‘backer with college experience at several different positions, but with limited indoor time. He joined the River Kings late last season and played effectively. He’s a hitter who loves stuffing the run, so he’s a good fit schematically.
Wise (5’11”, 235) has a similar build but more experience, having played for both Nebraska in the IFL and the Duke City Gladiators (now in the IFL, at the time in the Champions Indoor Football League).
Overall, this group could really use another veteran competitor in training camp. Coach Ivory likes big ‘backers who can “be the hammer,” so a veteran along those lines — 6’3″, 250 lbs. or so — would be ideal.
Defensive Back is another group that needs work going into training camp. Of the six DBs currently signed, only one, veteran defender Keith Trumps, regularly lines up as a safety (though he’s quite capable of manning up outside). Another defensive back, William Gibbs, was primarily a kick returner with Bismarck last year.
The remaining four defensive backs bring varying levels of indoor experience. The longest-tenured DB is Derrick Dyer, a four-year man who has played in three different arena leagues. A running back in college, he’s refining his game as a defensive back. He’s been effective at every level, turning in a solid five games for Bismarck last season.
Antwan Smith also comes to Cedar Rapids after a very effective half-season with the Bucks. Smith is a smart, versatile player who is eager to take on the responsibilities of Coach Ivory’s system. He played corner, safety, and jack linebacker with the Bucks, making him a valuable piece of the depth chart.
Tyler Hanks is a speedy rookie from Ferris State in Michigan. At 5’10, 166, he’ll be limited to certain matchups in coverage, but he’s a very coachable player with solid physical tools.
Overall, this group is talented, but short on depth, particularly at safety. Last year’s defense was, ironically, hampered by the offense — since we struggled to move the ball, opposing offenses didn’t really need to throw much against us. That shouldn’t be an issue this year, as Coach Mann has vowed to light the scoreboard up, but our opponents’ increased need to score, combined with the prevalence of true dual-threat quarterbacks around the league, makes an experienced safety group more important than ever. Additional experience at corner would also be nice. Tuff Johnson is a fan-favorite safety who remains unsigned, and DB Nickolas Brassell was one of the defense’s bright spots last season. Bringing one or both of them back (within the limits of the league’s veteran rules) could address at least some of the depth issue.
Special Teams appears to be well in hand, at least when it comes to returning kicks. DB William Gibbs (a fellow Houston Cougar alum) could be electrifying in that role last year for Bismarck, and rookie WR Tamarick Vanover Jr. has a special-teams pedigree that’s second to none. Both of them are threats to take it to the house on every single kick.
The only obvious lack here is kicker, which is a common — and, to me, inexplicable — failing of IFL teams in general. Only two teams, Iowa and Sioux Falls, managed to hit more than half of their field goal attempts last season. Not coincidentally, both went deep into the playoffs. Also un-coincidentally, the worst-kicking teams in the league generally failed to make the playoffs — Tucson sneaked in despite converting an abysmal 23% of their field goal tries, but Bismarck, San Diego, and Quad Cities only managed 31, 34, and 38% conversions, respectively.
That’s a lot of points left off the board. Obviously last year’s River Kings would’ve needed a lot more than field goals to make the playoffs, but our record could have been significantly better with a consistent kicking game. Hitting even half of our 44 field goal attempts — instead of the 38% we did manage — would’ve added 15 more points to our season total; hitting 87% of our extra points, instead of 77%, would’ve added another 5. Again, 20 extra points wouldn’t have gotten us into the playoffs, but it’s enough to win another game or two. Add in the points (alas, incalculable from the IFL’s published stats) that we gave up from poor kick coverage, and our record could have been significantly better in 2019.
With the league expanding to fourteen teams this year (and at least fifteen by 2021), competition will be fierce. One or two wins will definitely be the difference between making the playoffs and staying home. And yet, only Sioux Falls seems to emphasize consistency in the kicking game, locking down all-IFL honoree Miles Bergner early in free agency. A proven kicker, and increased emphasis on kickoff coverage, is a huge need for the 2020 River Kings.
Next up: The offense.