The Tacoma Cobras enter their third season of existence as the back-to-back Professional Developmental Football League champions. Despite their repeated success the past two seasons, the 2011 campaign will bring familiar faces, new players and a new home stadium.
After playing last season at Curtis High School, the Cobras will play at Stadium Bowl this season, with their first game scheduled for April 23 against the Renton Ravens.
While the season has yet to begin, head coach Dave McEachern already sees the team coming together during practice.
“I think the team unity and team chemistry is the best we’ve ever had so far,” McEachern said.
“I think we’re going to give some teams a run for their money.”
McEachern pointed to the veteran linebacker corps as a major strength for the team this year, as defensive leaders Paul Stevens and Josh Tuani return to the unit.
“Paul Stevens I’m looking for some big things from,” said defensive coordinator Andy Armstrong, pointing out that Stevens joined the team midway through last season.
Stevens, who played at Clover Park High School and Washington State University, and Tuani said the defense is coming along so far, despite having several rookies in the backfield.
“It’s all about battling every day in practice in your one-on-ones, getting adjusted to game speed and getting your mind focused,” Stevens said.
The team will get added coaching help this year from linebackers coach Lacy Walker, who played at the University of Washington under Don James from 1981 to 1984.
“What I’m seeing is a lot of experience,” Walker said. “They’re very good against the run, we’re working on our pass coverage right now.”
The defensive backfield returns safety and reigning PDFL Defensive MVP Ammar Othman, who tallied 49 tackles, three interceptions, four sacks and three blocked punts in 2010. Cornerback Mory Ke’ita returns as well after recording 39 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions last year.
On the defensive line, 5-foot-11, 300-pound Ryan Dowell returns, as well as defensive end Desean Quinn. Dowell tallied 4.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles last season, and will be joined up front by Darrell Palaita and Charles McIntosh.
Armstrong said instead of being a traditional 4-3 or 3-4 defense, he changes the game plan between a 4-2 and 3-3 defense, among others, depending on the offense they are facing.
“If I get guys who can get pressure this year, we won’t have to blitz as much,” Armstrong said, adding that the team blitzed 80 percent of the time in its first season in 2009.
However, Armstrong is looking to the speed of Tuani, Stevens and new linebacker Chris Vala to make plays for a defense that held teams to 11.7 points per game last season.
“I like chasing the ball down, when you carry the ball and come to my side, it’s me and you,” said Tuani as he slammed his fists together.
Offensively, the Cobras will have to overcome the loss of running backs Marcus Reed and Anthony McQueen, who totaled 1,200 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and wide receiver Jarrell Patterson, the reigning PDFL MVP.
Still, the offense looks to be successful under quarterback Kenny Jackson, who returns after a mid-season injury last year. Jackson threw for 936 yards, with nine touchdowns and three interceptions in 2010.
“Kenny Jackson is emerging as a big-time leader, he’s been in the system,” said McEachern of the leader of his spread offense.
Running back Bradley Chappell returns to the backfield after playing most of last season at wide receiver. 6-foot, 340-pound fullback Nathan Proctor also returns after rushing for 200 yards and four touchdowns in 2010.
Despite losing some key players, Jackson expects another solid running and passing game this season. “Coach Mac, with his play calling, there’s one game we’ll rush for 280-300 yards, and another game we’ll pass for the same amount,” Jackson said. “So our game is very balanced.”
The receiving corps is led by Brandon Ervin, a Washington State alum, and Bernard Blosser, who last season caught 16 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns.
Tight end Nick Caraballo also returns, as the converted quarterback caught 11 balls for 216 yards last season, with four touchdowns. Caraballo said the core of the offense last season was the offensive line, which returns several key members this season. “They average over 300 pounds, so it’s hard to not do what you want against whoever you’re playing.”
That line includes PDFL Lineman of the Year Larry Fowler, 6-foot-3, 360-pound Samson Vee and 6-foot-5 Robert Simpson. McEachern also expects big things from newcomers Ryan Will, Doug Walsh, Sean Oloapu and William Craig.
Jackson believes the team has the talent to repeat their 2010 performance, when they averaged more than 42 points per game.
“Coach Mac has the ability to bring a lot out of a player,” Jackson said, noting McEachern’s ability to develop game plans week by week. “The things he shows you and the situations he puts you in allow you to be successful.”
The success of the offense also depends somewhat on returning kicker Chris Kintz, whose strong leg was displayed last season when he booted a 52-yard field goal.
While games have yet to begin, and there is a solid core of returning players, Armstrong thinks the team is changing in a good way.
“There’s newer players, better players,” Armstrong said, adding they have weeded out players who did not seem to fit the system. “Yeah, we’re defending champions, but at the same time, we’re not the same team.”