Typically, the defending champions heads into a new season with a target on their back and are seen as the team to beat. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Abu Dhabi Wildcats.
Instead, the team come into the 2014-15 campaign having wiped the slate clean and looking to prove themselves all over again.
“It’s a new season so everyone is on an equal playing field, so that defending champion thing, I don’t subscribe to,” said Wildcats coach Charles Gillespie.
In their quest to defend the title, Wildcats open their season against the Al Ain Desert Foxes (kick-off 17:00), who went winless at 0-6 last year.
Two of those losses came at the hands of the Wildcats, who hammered Al Ain 26-6 and 30-0.
Nevertheless, Gillespie’s team isn’t looking past the Desert Foxes or expecting an easy win to begin their 2014-15 campaign.
“We respect every opponent and that’s the mark of any football team or in any competitive sport,” said Gillespie. “You respect your opponent that’s put in front of you and you give them your best.”
For Al Ain, they’re looking for a fresh start under new coach Johnny Sharp.
Coming to the UAE with 18 years of coaching experience around the US, including at powerhouse Damascus High School, Sharp is setting a different tone.
“I can’t even compare this year to last year because I wasn’t there,” Sharp said.
“My approach is going to be drastically different than how they coached last year. If nothing else, I’m the difference between this year and last year. The coaching has been upgraded.
“The first thing is, it’s a lot more football this year than it was in previous years. It’s a lot more of a football atmosphere with some of the new coaches that were brought in this year from the States that bring solid and sound football.”
Abu Dhabi and Al Ain finished at different points last season but have similar aspirations this year.
The Stallions and Barracudas get their first look at each other when the top two teams in the Emirates American Football League heading into the new season square-off tomorrow at Dubai Sports City.
After a dazzling unbeaten regular season last year, the Stallions’ run fell short in the Desert Bowl against the Abu Dhabi Wildcats. They head into the new season looking to take care of unfinished business but face a difficult challenge right off the bat against the Barracudas and their quarterback Zavier Cobb.
Cobb was last year’s Most Valuable Player as a duel-threat quarterback. The elusive dynamo threw for 388 yards and seven touchdowns while leading the league with 191 rushing yards.
The Stallions will try to limit Cobb’s playmaking ability outside of the pocket by containing the ends and relying on their spy pass coverage.
“The focus is going to be on basically shutting him down,” said Stallions player-coach Chris Wentzel.
“He’s very dangerous when he runs outside the pocket because he looks for pass-run opportunities.
“We just need to make sure that we shade him and have the rest of our defence maintain their coverage responsibilities. We can’t afford to make mistakes against a quarterback like that.”
While Cobb’s legs make him dangerous, Barracudas coach Kyle Jordan is looking forward to his quarterback’s development as a passer in only his second year playing the position full-time.
“He’s very hard to keep in the pocket, he’s got quick feet and when he’s rolling out he’s always got his eyes down the field looking for receivers,” said Jordan.
“He’s not just looking to run for the sake of running, he’s looking to connect with somebody. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.”
With both rosters having changed during the offseason, there will be a feeling out process in the opener. Rather than heading into the game with a rigid game plan, the Barracudas are planning to feel out their opponent before making crucial adjustments.
“We’re going to be figuring things out from the first kick-off through the end of the game,” Jordan said.
“I’m sure they’re doing new things, we’re definitely doing new things. Look in the first quarter for a little bit of feeling one another out and trying to figure out what each other is doing. At some point, a football game is going to open up and we’ll see each other for who we are.”
The Stallions, despite topping the league’s power rankings, will also have to deal with working in new players, but after rolling through the regular season last year and losing in the championship, they’re playing for the long haul.
“We’re going to use the first couple of games to test out a lot of the new players that have joined,” said Wentzel. “It’s very important to get them repetitions and work on in-game experience for the important games later on this season, especially come playoff time.”
The battle for Dubai gets under way at 19:30.
A new season of the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) kicks off this weekend and the entertaining action will be taken up a notch for this year’s campaign.
All four men’s teams will take the field tomorrow (Friday) as defending champions Abu Dhabi Wildcats try to pick up where they left off against the Al Ain Desert Foxes at 17:00, while the Stallions and Barracudas face-off in the battle for Dubai at 19:30.
Though the men’s teams headline the day, the youth league will feature 10 teams across three divisions of PeeWee, junior varsity and varsity beginning at noon and leading up to the Wildcats-Desert Foxes clash.
The EAFL have invested heavily in their youth programmes and are confident that their level will continue to improve.
“The youth league is the heart and soul of the EAFL,” said EAFL general manager Dustin Cherniawski.
“Our junior varsity division is the most competitive and that one is always a race to the Desert Bowl. All six teams are looking great and there are some amazing coaches at that level and the kids are at a great age where they understand the sport now, know their bodies better.”
A fast-paced style of football will be played on the turf of Dubai Sports City and hard hits won’t be the only thing served up come game-day.
Entry is free with hot food and cold beverages on offer. Burgers will be flipped courtesy of Ruth’s Chris Steak House and beverages will be on offer until 17:00.
The EAFL’s resident DJ Allad will blast music and the halftime shows will have contests and prize giveaways.
Also for the first time, the league will have a cheer team, Cheer Dubai, which will perform from halftime of the first men’s game to halftime of the second game – one of many new additions this season.
“They’re doing authentic cheerleading,” said Cherniawski.
“It’s not a dance team, it’s actual cheerleading, so they’re doing stunts and lifts and structures and all that kind of stuff. This will be their first opportunity to unveil all the new routines they’ve been working on.”
The EAFL have made an effort to improve the experience of watching and following the league by adding other cool elements that fans can enjoy.
This season will have new announcers, film crews to capture more videos, two sideline reporters to conduct in-game interviews and a stats team to keep track of the top players.
While the additions will raise the quality of the EAFL experience, the league knows the product on the field is still the priority and has drawn new players to strap it up.
“We’ve got a lot of great new talent this year,” said Cherniawski.
“Now that the league is established and people know about us, there are both players who were hesitant to get back into football and now have the fever again and coming back out of retirement and into the EAFL. And there are a lot of people who were playing other sports and going, ‘Wow, I really like what I’m seeing with the EAFL, maybe I’ll give that a try’ and they come out to a couple of practices and stay.
“Definitely, we’re doing some things right and turning some heads, but more importantly, we’re getting guys to come out and participate on the field which is our goal.”
Everyone is encouraged to come and check out this weekend’s games and for those interested in learning more about the sport, it’s a perfect opportunity.
“If you’ve never been to an American football game and you’ve always been curious to see what it’s all about, come on down and see how the EAFL puts on an authentic football experience from the players to the fans.”
What: Emirates American Football League opening weekend
When: Tomorrow, October 24 with youth games starting at noon and the men’s games starting at 17:00.
Where: Dubai Sports City
Cost: Entry is free
Ages: Family entertainment
Sport360° Verdict: Whether or not you’re a fan of American football, the EAFL’s season opener is sure to deliver on and off the field.
Contact: Visit www.eafl.ae