Training camp for the Tri-Cities Fever is going to be a bit smaller this year.
When the Indoor Football League team takes the Toyota Center field at 9 a.m. Sunday, head coach Adam Shackleford will be looking at just 30 players running around in drills as his squad prepares for its season opener, set for Feb. 28 at home against the Wyoming Cavalry.
In past seasons, Shackleford might have had 40 players as camp opened.
So why so few this time around?
We have 16 returners coming back, said Shackleford. We normally maybe have around nine players back. I just think wed bring in a small group of rookies.
The move makes sense.
After starting out struggling thanks to injuries, the Fever finished the 2013 regular season as one of the hotter teams in the IFL. But too many early-season losses made it impossible to qualify for the playoffs.
If he needs a quick fix, he can look at players being cut by the Arena Football Leagues Spokane Shock or the expansion Portland Thunder when they start paring down their rosters in late February.
Meanwhile, players began arriving Friday and will continue to arrive today as they make their way here through the bad weather.
The team is putting the players through physicals and getting their housing set up this weekend before two-a-days start Sunday and run through Wednesday in the Toyota Center.
A change for Shackleford and the rest of the IFL this season is that teams can only carry 24 players on their rosters (instead of 25 last season) and can only suit up 20 (instead of 21 in 2013).
Shackleford doesnt see that as a huge problem.
When I first got into the Arena Football League, we could only suit up 19, he said. The league made this decision a while ago, and weve had time to prepare. Its a money-saver decision. House one less guy, feed one less guy.
What it means is hell be looking for some players who can play on both sides of the ball mainly the interior line.
Currently, there are three players on the roster who are listed as both offensive and defensive linemen: William Brimfield, a 6-5, 330-pounder out of the University of Tennessee; Will Lawrence, at 6-2, 300 out of Boise State who was with Montreal in the Canadian Football League at one point; and Sean McDonald, a 6-2, 315-pounder from Humboldt State.
As it is, they could see a lot of action. The Fever has only one offensive lineman returning in Andrew Faaumu.
That offensive line will work to protect the teams quarterbacks, both of whom saw action last season for the Fever in Dante Warren and Andre Broadous.
That excites Shackleford.
Were not teaching those guys anything they havent seen before, he said. Well be farther ahead in camp. We may bring in a third quarterback.
But Ive never had two returning quarterbacks before, and they both won games before for us.
Veteran Keithon Flemming returns to the Fever at running back. Hell get some competition from Jay Finley, a Baylor University product who saw time with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The receivers are all IFL veterans: D.A. Allen, Ed Berry, Jackie Chambers and Dejuan Miller.
And Tre Young is still a possibility to come back, Shackleford said.
As exciting as that may sound to Fever fans, the defensive unit has an even more up side.
Weve got nine guys back on the defensive side who have played for us before, Shackleford said.
And the defensive secondary is the most loaded almost an IFL Legion of Boom.
All-IFL performer Lionell Singleton leads the way, along with Dustin Bell from two seasons ago, Donyae Coleman, Rudell Crim, and Dennis Rogan.
Then there are the newcomers in Martavious Lee, who spent time with the Baltimore Ravens, and Quinton Richardson, a University of Washington product who spent time with the Detroit Lions.
I think our defensive back positions will be a good battle, said Shackleford. I think we have some very good IFL rookies. And we may not carry five in the secondary with the limited roster number. Even guys who played for us last season may be out.
Boris Lee and Brandon Wilson are back at linebackers although Wilson spent time last season on the defensive line too.
Brandon Rankin and Malcom Riley are veterans back on the defensive line.
Shackleford and his assistant, Cleveland Pratt, will be working hard to make sure those final cuts are just the right moves.
Weve been extremely picky about who weve brought in, said Shackleford. We need to be very patient. Im excited about a lot of the guys. Ive never had 16 veterans back before.
Notes: The team will have two practices Sunday, at 9 a.m. and then 2:30 p.m. Itll repeat that process Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday all inside the Toyota Center with the dasherboards set up. The public is invited to attend any practice for free as long as they arent Wyoming coaches, said Sghackleford. ... The players will have a team meal at the Old Country Buffet next to Columbia Center Mall at 5 p.m. today. Fans can come meet the players. ... Defensive lineman E.J. Nduka, who has been with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, was scheduled to be with the Fever in camp. But he has a tryout scheduled with the Houston Texans on Sunday. If he doesnt make it with them, hell be with us on Monday, said Shackleford.