The 2020 IFL season kicks off this Saturday night, March 7, at the US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The River Kings (1-13 in 2019) face off against their newest rivals, the Quad Cities Steamwheelers (6-8). Last season, Quad Cities won both matchups, 58-36, 48-29.
The River Kings underwent a near-complete overhaul this offseason, with only two players from the 2019 squad returning. The coaching staff is also completely new. Victor Mann takes the reins as head coach after several productive years in the Champions Indoor Football League (CIF), where he led the Texas Revolution to a league championship. He’s joined by arena football veteran Trae Ivory, who serves as Defensive Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach. Rounding out the coaching staff is Fred Shaw (defensive backs / receivers), a nine-year arena veteran player. All coaches bring a passion for the game and a hard-hitting attitude Mann describes as #TeamNoSoft.
“It’s a challenge,” Mann says. “A new league, a new city, a new group of guys. But we’re going to go out there and just play football, just get it done.”
Stopping the Steamwheelers will be no easy task. Quad Cities returns quarterback EJ Hilliard, an impressive young passer who was near the top of most offensive categories in 2019. Hilliard had the highest yards per game average among IFL quarterbacks and was second in touchdowns thrown (57). Even more impressively, he threw only 3 interceptions. To top it all off, he was one of the league’s leading rushers in 2019, averaging 33 yards per game (7th) on 107 attempts (7th).
“You’ve just got to contain him,” says veteran defensive end Desmond Raiford. “We know what kind of player he is. We know what he can do, so we know what we have to do. We’ll get it done.”
The 2019 Steamwheelers also had two receivers near the top of most categories: Keyvan Rudd and Quinton Pedroiza. Combined, they hauled in 42 touchdown receptions. Both return for the 2020 season. “They’re great players,” says veteran defensive back Treavor Pugh, “but we’ve got plans to shut them down.”
Defensively, the River Kings will field an exciting mix of veteran IFL players and new faces. Both of the returning 2019 River Kings played on the defensive line. Walter “Surge” Walker is a big tackle who can compress the pocket. Defensive end Sam Mabany is a very quick, very long pass rusher who uses his 6’8″ height to set the edge and help control the line of scrimmage.
The defensive backfield is anchored by a smart core of young players. DBs Pugh, Antwan Smith, and Derrick Dyer, especially, all impressed last season in indoor action. They’re ready to step into much bigger roles in Ivory’s fast, head’s up defense. La’More Wise, a fast, wide linebacker, will be patrolling the middle of the field.
The Cedar Rapids offense is vastly different unit from 2019. Last season’s offensive numbers were dismal, with the River Kings ranking near the bottom of most offensive categories. GM Reggie Harris moved to address this very early in the offseason, adding a pair of talented, gunslinging quarterbacks in Derrick Bernard and Javin Kilgo. Bernard was among the league leaders in touchdowns and passing yardage before his tenure ended with the San Diego Strike Force; he continued to light up the scoreboard with the Omaha Beef of the CIF. Javin Kilgo impressed in limited action with the CIF’s Duke City Gladiators (who joined the IFL this season), going 8 of 9 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Both also have quick feet and can improvise if a play breaks down.
Other weapons include two promising young running backs, Eddie Lusk III and James Harden, and an athletic receiver corps led by veteran Bones Bagaunte. Lusk and Harden provide a nice one-two punch on the ground. Lusk is a bruising runner with sprinter speed. Harden is a smaller back with very quick feet who looks to be nightmare out of the backfield. Out wide, Bagaunte is joined by two up-and-coming young targets in Shaq Curenton and Donovan Rasberry, both of whom impressed with Tucson last season.
One thing’s for sure: The new-look River Kings don’t lack for speed. Wideouts William Gibbs III, Tamarick Vanover Jr., and Chris Franklin can all return kicks as well as catch passes. Tre Taylor and Gary McKnight are exciting young players who should see some passes coming their way as well.
In short, our River Kings are in a great position to succeed. There’s all the talent in the world on both sides of the ball, with a good mix of veteran leadership and an experienced coaching staff with a proven winning mentality. Quad Cities will be tough to beat, but this is the team to do it.
Kickoff is at 7:05 CST, at the US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tickets are still available, but going fast! Check the team’s official website, goriverkings.com, for details.