Oklahoma Defenders on the rise

Game 03 Oklahoma Defenders vs Bloomington EdgeAfter a chaotic inaugural season in the Champions Professional Indoor Football League (CPIFL) the Oklahoma Defenders and their head coach Derek Rasmussen are looking to settle down and get the job done.  The motto-hashtag they have been using on social networking since the end of last season has been #RISEOKD2014, and they are all business this go-round.

Most of Tulsa does not know about the Oklahoma Defenders indoor football team.  They have struggled to find an identity in a town where professional teams, with notable exceptions, do not have a long shelf life. (Not to mention the constant mis-identification with the Tulsa Talons, formerly of the Arena Football League and the Arena Football 2.) The by-product of that is that most of the former Talons fans equate the Defenders with the team that stole away to San Antonio three years ago much like the Baltimore Colts did when they relocated to Indianapolis in 1983 and thus they unfairly assume that they will not last long.

The thing is, the Defenders don’t really play arena football.  They play “indoor” football and there is a difference.  In reality, the only similarities to the game of traditional arena-style football is the fact that it is played indoors on a fifty yard padded playing surface that is enclosed by dasherboards.  That’s pretty much it.  It’s a concept that has been around longer than arena football, and the NFL even used a version of the game 82 years ago in a playoff game between the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans, (now known as the Detroit Lions), which was played in Chicago Stadium.

OkDefenders14The indoor game is similar to arena football with a few notable exceptions.  For example, quarterbacks do not have the option of 40 foot tall rebound nets on the ends of the field that would send the ball back in play if it is overthrown out of bounds so more of the indoor game is on the ground, smashmouth, run-style football as opposed to the all-out air assault you see in arena football.  It also puts more emphasis on a strong defense.

As a result, for the seasoned viewer of arena football, the indoor game isn’t as fast paced and is more tactical than that played by the more popular AFL.

Third time a charm for the Defenders?

The team was formed in 2012 by owner Lamar Baker and began play in the spring of that year at the Fairgrounds Pavilion.  Under the direction of Rasmussen and Baker the team battled to a 9-3 record and a playoff berth in their only season in the American Professional Football League (APFL), only to lose to Council Bluffs in the first round.  Last season the Defenders along with several other teams broke from the APFL, citing lack of confidence and the need for greater opportunities in the league, among other reasons and formed the CPIFL, adding two former Indoor Football League (IFL) teams in Omaha and Wichita.

The new league also brought a change of venue for the Oklahoma Defenders home games, switching from the Pavilion to the Cox Business Center downtown, the former home of the Tulsa Talons. The change of scenery was nice but the team’s sophomore season was not as successful as the first as they limped to a 3-9, 8th place finish.  A lot of factors contributed to the lackluster performance of the Defenders but that’s all in the rear view mirror now.

Reloading and regrouping job #1 for Rasmussen.

Game 04 Oklahoma Defenders vs Kansas KoyotesThe Defenders scored some surprising new players during the long off season.  Hubert Anyiam and Ronnell Lewis were among the first two marquee players to sign contracts with the team, and they bring a local rivalry flair to the team.

Anyiam is a former OSU Cowboy who hails from Garland, Texas.  He also has experience after college with the San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers in the NFL.  He led the Cowboys with 42 catches and 515 receiving yards in 2009 and had a breakout game against Texas A & M that season when he caught three passes for 58 yards, including a 27-yard TD.  Anyiam brings a big play mentality as well as an explosive skill set to the receiving core for 2014.

Ronnell Lewis is a former OU defensive end who spent time as a member of the Detroit Lions.   In just three seasons with the Sooners, Lewis amassed 118 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and 2 interceptions (including a 12-yard touchdown return).  Lewis found a name for himself in the 2009 Sun Bowl amongst the Sooner faithful with his two bone-crushing hits on kickoffs against Stanford. He was named Big XII Player of the Week with his 9-tackle, one interception game against Texas A&M.

Sam Proctor makes a tackle as a Sooner.  He became an Oklahoma Defender 2.12.2014

Sam Proctor makes a tackle as a Sooner. He became an Oklahoma Defender 2.12.2014

That was last fall.  Just prior to the start of Defenders training camp the team dropped two major names onto their roster: Sam Proctor, who like Lewis comes from the OU Sooners and the Detroit Lions and possibly the biggest windfall of all, former Tulsa Talons superstar Jeff Hughley.

Proctor played safety and special teams at the University of Oklahoma 2008-2011 with fellow Defender Ronnell Lewis; both players were then signed by the Detroit Lions in 2012.  As a Sooner, Proctor played in 53 games and accumulated 103 tackles.  He was an important part of special teams and had multiple tackles on special teams each season.  Proctor was also known at OU for inspiring his teammates to remain dedicated to the sport they love.

At Pearland High School in Pearland Texas, he ran 221 times for 1,658 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior.  He completed 42 of 82 passes for an additional 456 yards and four touchdowns as a team captain, helping his team to the Texas Class 5A State Semifinals.  He played defense twice and recorded a tackle each time.

Jeff Hughley

Jeff Hughley

Hearkening back to the rich tradition started by the Oklahoma Defenders forerunners in the indoor/arena football universe, the Defenders picked up former Arena Football and AF2 ironman of the year Jeff Hughley literally on the eve of training camp.  If you were a fan of the Talons in their final years in Tulsa, you know the name Jeff Hughley.

Jeff joined the Tulsa Talons in 2007. Hughley’s biggest performance during his rookie season came on the biggest stage of the season, the ArenaCup (AF2 Championship).  During that contest, Hughley caught 9 passes for 143 yards and 2 touchdowns, as well as 7 kickoff returns for 203 yards, and was named the U.S. Army Strong Ironman of the Game.  His 203 return yards and 346 all-purpose yards were both ArenaCup records.  During the 2009 season Jeff was named AF2 Ironman of the Year.

In 2010, the Talons first season in the AFL, Hughley made a huge impact while accumulating 2,808 yards which ranked 2nd in the league.  In 2011 with the Jacksonville Sharks, Hughley once again was a dynamic threat while accounting over 2,600 all-purpose yards.  During the 2012 Philadelphia Soul campaign, Jeff was named the AFL IronMan of the Year, with over 2,900 all-purpose yards.  Last season, he returned to Jacksonville, and caught 82 passes for 889 yards and 15 touchdowns, and once again eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark on kick returns.

There is also a solid core of returning players.  Returning on the offensive side of the ball is Jarvis Pitts (QB), KingJack Washington (RB), Patrick Jones (WR), James “Buddy” Blevins (WR), Curtis Tucker (WR), Keith Marshall (WR), Terry Johnson (OL), and David Lazenby (OL).  On the defensive side of the ball, slated to return for the Defenders will be DL Victor Clore (DL), Ki’ounta Cathey (DL), BJ Hodshire (LB), Delaney Dobard (DB), and Ronnie Neal (DB).

With all this ammunition in his camp Rasmussen is optimistic about the Defenders potential this season.

“After last season, I really felt that we had found our ‘core’ group of local guys that I definitely wanted to re-sign and have them here for this season.” Rasmussen said,   “The newcomers have fit in well to the philosophy us as a team and organization, have set after the first few years.  The new signees have all came in and worked hard on the field, and brought a new intensity and leadership to our organization.”

OKDefendersLogo2“The general mood or atmosphere this year is awesome to see as a coach. Every night we have people competing and really stepping up and making the others around them step up.” Coach Rasmussen continued,  “Also I feel that we are more prepared as a whole, and that mainly has to do with players asking questions and wanting to know exactly what they are doing so that come game night, they aren’t thinking, they are reacting. “

Patrick “Packy” Jones agrees with his coach on the teams’ potential this season.  “It’s been an off season of hard work from the front office to the coaches to the players.” Jones said,

“Everything is shaping up and can’t wait for March 1st.”  In his second year for the Defenders, Patrick Jones caught 62 balls for 765 yards and 14 TD’s, which won him CPIFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Honors.

The Oklahoma Defenders will open the 2014 season this weekend against the Kansas Koyotes at 7pm in the Cox Business Center Arena in the “Kickoff Classic” presented by the downtown Aloft Hotel.  A number of events are planned leading up to kickoff, including a pre-game tailgate in the Baxter’s Interurban parking lot at 717 South Houston, (roughly a half block south of the Cox Business Center), a live broadcast by 106.9 K-Hits, and on-field pre-game entertainment by the Defender Diamonds dance team prior to player introductions.  In addition, the first 500 fans through the door will receive a free Oklahoma Defenders schedule cup.  Tickets are available at the Cox Business Center box office and information on season tickets and group ticket packages are available by visiting www.oklahomadefenders.com.