If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: expectations for the Al Ain Desert Foxes have been drastically raised and coach Johnny Sharp intends on meeting them.
The defending champions remained perfect on the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) season with a second win in as many chances by beating the Dubai Stallions 20-6 at Zayed Sports City on Friday.
But for Sharp, Al Ain eluded perfection when they allowed a garbage-time touchdown in the final minutes, marking the first time anyone has scored on Desert Foxes’ stingy defence through eight quarters of football.
Sharp, who proclaimed ahead of the season that he would be disappointed if his team allowed any points, wasn’t pleased to see the Stallions find the end zone on Taylor Avritt’s 2-yard pass to Theo Von Aspern late in the fourth quarter.
So after the game, Sharp made his squad run.
“Expectations are always ‘give up nothing at all’. I screamed to them, ‘if you give this up, we’re going to have to deal with it,’” Sharp said.
“Immediately, we shook hands, we lined up and we ran. The expectations are clear not only to my team, but to the league. The expectation is to give donuts to everybody, every week.”
These are the same Desert Foxes who were happy just to earn a win last season to end a multi-year drought.
But much has changed since and after claiming their first title, Al Ain have adopted the mentality of champions.
“We just need to finish. Every play is a new down,” said Desert Foxes receiver Nicholas Amica, who scored Al Ain’s first touchdown against the Stallions on a pass from Jay Hall. “[Coach Sharp] said he wanted us to finish. We just didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish.”
The Desert Foxes’ offence, meanwhile, was impressive in punching in three touchdowns.
After Amica’s score, Hall added a 1-yard quarterback keeper in the second quarter and then recovered a fumble to set up Thomas Newman’s 3-yard plunge in the third quarter.
The only points in the battle of attrition came when Barracudas quarterback David Pearce connected with Bernard Morrey II on a touchdown pass, with running back Luke Norrey converting the two-point conversion in the third quarter.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game with both sides short on players, but we trusted our line, ran hard and we got the result,” said Norrey.
After just one game, the Dubai Stallions‘ offence already appears well ahead of schedule.
Though the results didn’t bear it out in the Emirates American Football League’s (EAFL) opening weekend, the Stallions impressed with their ability to move the ball, especially through the air.
If not for a goal-line stand by the Al Ain Desert Foxes, the Stallions would have scored on Johnny Sharp’s impenetrable defence and perhaps pulled out a win.
The Stallions get another crack at the defending champions when the teams meet at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi tomorrow (Friday) in a battle of top units on each side of the ball.
For the Stallions, quarterback Matt Duncan turned heads with his ability to sling the ball in the opener and despite suffering a dislocated finger towards the end of the contest, he’ll again be under centre tomorrow.
“Across the board, of all the three teams, we probably by a wide margin had the most passing yardage,” said Stallions coach Patrick Campos. “Matt throws the ball real well, but we also have Taylor [Avritt] who also runs at quarterback as well as a duel-threat guy.
“People didn’t expect us to throw the ball like that because in our league especially it takes until the middle of the season before you get that rhythm down.”
Avritt was the regular quarterback last season under coach Brett Turek and while Duncan may take more snaps going forward, Campos plans on utilising both players and mixing in different offensive packages at various points in the game.
The Stallions offence will also receive a boost with wide receiver Christian Ridley making his debut for the Dubai side.
After showcasing in his lone appearance with the EAFL Falcons in Ukraine over the offseason, Ridley will provide the Stallions with a playmaker on the outside.
“He will be [on Johnny Sharp’s radar],” Campos said of Ridley, who played at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. “He’ll be even more after this week, I’m sure.”
Sharp, meanwhile, was complimentary when giving his first impressions of the Stallions from last week, saying: “They have a really nice team and I think they’re going to surprise some people.”
But the Desert Foxes coach doesn’t expect any surprises against his stout defence, who he remains confident in to shut down all opponents this season.
“Like I said last week, I’d be really disappointed if someone scored on us,” Sharp stated. “We’re just really big, we’re really strong and fast at all the right positions.”
Tony Robinson’s men had to forfeit last week after not having enough players to field a team, while the Barracudas got Zavier Cobb’s coaching tenure off to a strong start with a win for the week.
Zavier Cobb’s coaching debut offered a promising glimpse into what the Dubai Barracudas could be this season.
In his first appearance on the sidelines with the Barracudas’ men’s team, the former quarterback oversaw a winning start as his squad impressed in a round robin format at The Sevens on Friday.
With the Abu Dhabi Wildcats unable to field a team in the Emirates American Football League’s (EAFL) season-opening weekend, the Barracudas, Dubai Stallions and defending champion Al Ain Desert Foxes played each other for one half of football.
The Barracudas and Desert Foxes battled to a scoreless tie in the first game, before Cobb’s side defeated their cross-town rivals 8-6 in the second contest.
The final game saw Al Ain triumph 6-0 over the Stallions to also earn a victory on the weekend.
In the most action-packed clash, star running back Luke Norrey scored the first points of the season on a 50-yard touchdown run, while former Stallion Gary Stillman punched in the two-point conversion to put the Barracudas up 8-0.
The Stallions answered on quarterback Matt Duncan’s slant pass to Michael Salvati for a touchdown, but the two-point chance failed as a sack by the Barracudas’ Stefan Kirsten kept his team ahead and ultimately sealed the win.
Speaking on what Cobb brings as a coach, Barracudas veteran linebacker Alex Rodriguez said: “He’s doing great. We miss Kyle [Jordan, previous coach], obviously he was a big part of the team and still is, still supports us. But I think with coach Z we’re freshening things up and switching things up, so guys who’ve been on the Cudas for a while are seeing new schemes, different types of practices and different types of formations. I think we like that to keep it fresh.”
The Desert Foxes, meanwhile, didn’t look fully up to speed as they began their title defence with a relatively modest start, especially after coach Johnny Sharp’s bold proclamation that his team would put the rest of the league in “body bags” heading into the weekend.
While Al Ain’s defence looked as stout as ever, their only points came on a 5-yard touchdown run by Shaun Harvin in the win over the Stallions.
Offensive lineman Adeeb Labaran believed the unusual schedule played a factor, saying: “I think it was a matter of it being a round robin and we weren’t used to it. The next game we play, I think it’ll be a different outcome.”