New head coach Darren Arbet knows how important coaching can be. This was never more obvious than this off-season when he was hired to take over the Panthers. He immediately set out to build a star-studded staff of coaches knowing this in turn would attract high-caliber players.
Darren Arbet returns to California ready to pick up where he left off in the AFL. He is nothing short of an indoor football legend in the Bay Area, after playing one season with the Los Angeles Cobras, 1988. By 1990 he began coaching this time for Sacramento State, his Alma Matter as a Tight Ends coach. He spent from 1992-1998 with the Albany Firebirds in various capacities before moving on to San Jose. This is where Arbet made a name for himself. From 1999 to 2015 Arbet was in San Jose and built a winning program. He left in 2015 with a record of 169-73, including a 19-9 record in the playoffs. He won four Arena Bowls in five appearances for the AFL, and was named was also named coach of the year twice during his career. Ultimately he was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2011.
On the offensive side, he tapped a very recent head coach in Dixie Wooten. Wooten was most recently head coach of the Tucson Sugar Skulls. He was let go following the 2022 season when the Sugar Skulls ultimately did not advance deep into the playoffs. Wooten was given just two seasons to win a championship in Tucson before being let go following a 9-8 record and playoff appearance in 2022.
The Keefense is coming to the Bay Area! That’s right well known defensive mind Rob Keefe was hired after spending 2022 with the NAZ Wranglers. He brings with him 3 Arena Bowl titles, 2 Arena Cup titles, and 1 IFL title. Keefe was hired to once again run the defense and serve as assistant head coach. I’m fairly surprised he wasn’t hired for one of the openings within the IFL or NAL where he has some ties to the Orlando Predators who were looking for a new head coach.
Kerry Soppett who served as the QB/RB coach in 2022 under head coach Kurt Bryan has seemingly been retained. He will oversee two position groups that have seen some recent changes. Fans in the Bay are excited about this staff, but that excitement only goes so far if the wins don’t come with the reputations that were hired.
Priority #1 Re-Sign Key 2022 Players
To say Dan Crowell Jr was the leading receiver on the Panthers last season bid true, but it doesn’t truly envelope everything he was for the team. While his 43 receptions for 546 yards and 10 touchdowns more than doubled any other receiver on the roster, this didn’t stop him from playing on kick coverage units. He collected 11 tackles as one of the best gunners on his team. Bringing him back in the fold for 2023 was unbelievably important to any coaching staff that took over in the Bay.
Next up they wanted to make sure they locked up the best players in the trenches. They began on the offensive side of the ball with Api Mane the 6’4 320 lb guard/tackle returning for the 2023 season. Ironically Mane was also signed by the Michigan Panthers of the USFL this offseason to compete for a spot. The Bay Area Panthers will be thrilled to pounce on Mane if released. Mane’s story is one of perseverance and struggle, so I apologize if I’m rooting against him being released by the USFL.
Young was a solid performer in 2022 although his impact didn’t result in sacks. Playing in 13 games he collected 34 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, 1 sack, 1 tipped pass, 1 forced fumble, and 1 recovery. Young is one of those guys you just have to keep on the roster if you’re a new staff. Young spent the 2021 season under Wooten with Tucson. He originally signed with Tucson in 2020 before the season was canceled.
McCoy is a lineman that can play both ways depending on your particular need at the time. He spent the 2021 season with the Sioux Falls Storm before joining the Panthers in 2022. He was regarded as the best offensive lineman on the roster in 2022, and he returns for a chance to help bring this team from worst to first in 2023. We watched in 2022 as NAZ in just their second year of existence won the big game. Could the Panthers be the next IFL squad to manage this monumental turnaround?
Priority #2 Bring in the Best Free Agents Available
Dilworth is a name that Shady Sports fans should recognize we had him on in 2022 to announce he had signed with the Edmonton Elks of the CFL. Despite this, he has inked a contract with the Panthers to ensure he has a home no matter what happens. He also pursued the XFL draft but was not selected. At 6’3 215 lbs, having produced 39 receptions for 509 yards and 8 touchdowns in just 9 games last season it would be no shock to see him return to the IFL and dominate.
Hungerford was a part of the championship-winning team in NAZ last season. He also tried his hand at the XFL draft but found himself selected. He follows his former defensive coordinator to the Bay Area to continue developing under one of the best defensive minds in the game. At 6’0 225 lbs, Hungerford is solid in coverage and run defense and should be a welcomed addition to this squad.
During the regular season, there was one squad that set itself apart which was the 15-3 Frisco Fighters. What better way to steal from the rich than to give to the poor? Duane Gary the leading rusher from last season has jumped to the Pittsburgh Maulers of the USFL leaving a gaping hole at running back. Rankin rushed for the most yards of any non-quarterback in 2022 with 776 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Stokes has bounced around in the IFL since 2021 spending time with Arizona and Bismarck. In 2021 with the Bucks he managed 12 carries for 56 yards and 2 touchdowns, 33 receptions for 526 yards and 13 touchdowns, 1 kick return for 5 yards, and 7 tackles. Playing in just 2 games Stokes had 6 receptions for 86 yards, 4 kick returns for 70 yards, and 5 tackles. He is one of those players every roster needs that will truly help your team in any way possible.
The new regime decided to move on from 5’7 165 lb WR Isaiah Thomas, DL Jeremiah Caine, and DB Taylor Mashack instead of signing 6’0 195 lb WR Maceo Matthews Jr. as well as IFL veterans OL Jamarcus Means, and DL Noah Harris-Lyles.
Maceo Matthews Jr.
Matthews Jr. Produced 40 touchdowns in just 32 games during college. He managed to set himself apart as a home run threat every time he touches the ball. He’s a fearless receiver who attacks the ball like he is entitled to every reception. He is no easy draw for any defender and I am excited to see what he can do in the IFL.
Means is another nasty offensive lineman added to this completely revamped group. Having spent last season in Tucson under his new offensive coordinator Dixie Wooten, Means has an inside track on earning a starting job in 2023. Means played both ways during his time with Davenport University, so he is yet another very valuable lineman for an indoor team to carry. If push came to shove, Means could line up as a defensive tackle next week and help the team make it through a week of an injury. He is one of three linemen that possess this versatility on this team.
Signed away from Quad City, he was a key member of a defense that helped lead their team to the Championship game against NAZ. Ultimately QC fell just short of winning the big game in 2022. Harris-Lyles to his credit saw the opportunity to join a Championship caliber squad by jumping to the Panthers. In just 7 games last season Lyles proved his worth by collecting 22 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, 2.5 sacks, and 1 forced fumble. I am excited to see this pass rush in action in 2023 with the additions that Coach Arbet and Keefe have brought into a porous 2022 defense.
Lockett is a slightly undersized offensive lineman but what he lacks in height he makes up for with intelligence. He was invited to the XFL draft but didn’t hear his name called. Lockett spent the 2022 season with the Massachusetts Pirates but looks to try and be a part of a championship run in 2023.
Tyrone Cromwell III
Cromwell is a defensive back who lined up in 23 games for Florida International. He was the definition of a shutdown corner during that time. He collected 5 interceptions and 25 pass deflections. Including a 2019 season in which he went off. He had 31 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, 3 interceptions, 18 pass deflections, and 2 blocked kicks. Cromwell credits his film study for putting himself in a position to find the ball. More importantly, this will be Cromwell’s third season under Coach Keefe. He spent his rookie IFL season in 2021 with Iowa, in 2022 with NAZ where he won a championship, and now back with him in the Bay for 2023.
Yet another man from my backyard. Having attended Colorado State-Pueblo he managed a very solid 2021 season. Topping 100 yards rushing four times, He put up 902 yards in 11 games. He carried the ball 154 times meaning he averaged just under 6 yards per carry. He also adds value in the passing game where he had 17 receptions for 98 yards and 1 touchdown. He also had 1 kick return for 20 yards. I could see him starting as the kick returner in year one behind Rankins, but he will struggle to find offensive touches in 2023 unless he shows out in a jaw-dropping manner.
Here Comes the Beef
The coaching staff certainly did not like what they had left from the 2022 season in the trenches. Further evidence of this was the decision to bring in two more bigger defensive linemen that have some positional versatility to play end or tackle depending on the situation.
Campbell spent the 2022 season in Green Bay with the Blizzard. Campbell played in 8 games, collecting 12 tackles, 2.5 for a loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 pass breakup, 2 QB hits, and 1 blocked kick. Green Bay likely would have wanted him back given the chance, but instead, he will try and find his role with the Panthers who are all of a sudden stacked on that defensive line. One thing to note, Campbell played last season at 315 lbs but has dropped 20 lbs to help provide more pressure and penetration in 2023.
Greenwood has signed with the Panthers as an IFL rookie. He will try to assimilate into the indoor football game in 2023. Greenwood played in college at 270 lbs and ended up one of the better pass rushers on the team. He collected 6.5 sacks at that weight in 2021. Coming out of SUNY Brockport, his level of competition left something to be desired, but his performance did not. Playing in a total of 48 games over 4 seasons he produced an amazing 143 tackles, 45.5 tackles for a loss, 21.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 4 forced fumbles, and 1 safety. He is the type of promising young player every IFL team wishes they had to develop.
Shedding Some Weight
The team also opted to release DBs Brandon Dabney, Elijah Bell, Frederick Gaines, LB Jevari Anderson, Jeffery Allison, RBs Timmel Benton, Gabe Watson, OL Daniel Small, and Adrien Hernandez. OL Marcus Owens was also placed on league injured reserve already.
Adding Wide Receivers
On the off chance, Dilworth doesn’t return indoors in 2023 the Panthers wanted to ensure they still have a physically imposing receiver. That’s where Jalen Martin comes in at 6’3 210 pounds. Martin attended a rookie minicamp with the Detroit Lions but was ultimately not retained by the NFL squad. In turn, the Panthers are happy to have the rookie for the 2023 season. They’re simply hoping they get to see him play in the IFL.
Lilly is a small and speedy receiver at 5’11 180 lbs. He is a solid slot receiver, who knows how to work the inside routes, and middle of the field. He isn’t scared to play special teams either. Ironically he is very green at receiver having also seen time at defensive back for the New Mexico Lobos. Lilly managed just 28 receptions for 470 yards and 5 touchdowns, adding 10 carries for 66 yards as well. In 2017 he made the move from defensive back after collecting 14 tackles and 1 for a loss. Lilly could very well see time on both sides of the ball.
Yet another defensive line addition for the 2023 rotation. It’s getting to the point where I’m not sure how they will incorporate all these different linemen. Holloway is a literal unknown at any level other than high school. Holloway was a highly touted recruit that attended UNLV but ended up buried on the depth chart collecting just 5 appearances, 1 tackle, and 1 pass breakup during that time. He left college at 6’3 230 lbs, after gaining 20 lbs during his short college career. Perhaps Holloway ends up playing a rush linebacker spot, rather than lining up one on one with a lineman every play.
Not Slowing Down in November
With November came more moves. This time we saw QB Isaac Hurd LB Clayton Glasco, and WR/DB Nick Brasell released making way for Martin and DB Kei Beckham to join the team. Beckham is a Charleston alum who intercepted 5 passes scoring twice. He left school for the 22 draft class. But ultimately was not selected. He could be a name to watch in 2023 as a potential breakout player.
Grant will look to add some more juice to the Panthers’ pass rush. Grant played a hybrid position seeing time between linebacker and defensive end. He later headed north to the CFL. This guy managed 18 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, 1 interception, 5 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery. He is a versatile weapon for Keefe to work with this season. His game is not all that different from JaQuan Artis who led the league in sacks as a rookie under Keefe with NAZ, before being drafted into the XFL.
Tagaloa returns to his defensive tackle/end position where he will try and eat up blocks allowing guys like Grant to do their damage. Playing in just 3 games he had 7 tackles, and 1 for a loss. Tagaloa has also played center during his career and could see time on offense. It’ll be interesting to see how usage changes as the season go on. His type of versatility is clutch for indoor teams looking for depth in creative ways. It doesn’t get any better than a player who played both ways dating back to college.
Wilson was signed to help solidify the offensive line and open up running lanes for Rankins in the backfield. At 6’6 300 lbs, you would never guess it but Wilson played tight end in high school making the move to tackle as a senior. In his first three seasons with Hampton he redshirted in 2016, and by 2019 was a primary starter. He then transferred to Pitt, where he played in 12 games over the next two seasons. In 2021 he added a guard to his resume playing in 6 games as a reserve guard. Wilson should be a solid addition to this line, and perhaps even a player who can develop over time as he learns the indoor game.
Mike Andrejco is a solid, and athletic left tackle. He has played as small as 258 pounds during his time playing tight end. He has also seen time on defense at the end. It appears to me that Coach Wooten wants dancing bears up front that can pull and lead block for Rankins. Giving this offensive line a facelift was a priority so it’s no surprise to see but the way it’s being built is a bit of a departure from some of the other moves. Mane seems to be the exception to the rule here.
So far this offseason, one of the final signing they have made was RB Calil Wilkins. Wilkins is a guy who spent time at West Virginia State and Bowie State University. No matter where he played, he performed well. In 20 games with WVSU, he had 314 touches, 1,989 yards, and 17 touchdowns. He moves on to BSU and plays in 18 games collecting 326 touches, 1,784 yards 11 touchdowns. At 5’8 210 lbs, he is a bowling ball with a low center of gravity who specializes in yards after initial contact.
Along with the signings of Wilkins, and Andrejco the Panthers lost Derik Calhoun to the XFL Draft, and cut Leonard Hazewood IV.
Trae Meadows a defensive back who was released by the NAZ Wranglers earlier this offseason has been brought in as well. Meadows had a solid season in 2022 with NAZ, helping win a championship for his team. Meadows had 56 tackles, 3 interceptions, 7 PBU’s, and 1 fumble recovery in 2022.
Last but not least the Panthers swung a trade with the Green Bay Blizzard. Sending future considerations to the Blizzard in exchange for a potential QB1. Ladarius Skelton is fairly new to the indoor game. His rookie season coming in 2022 with the Blizzard. However, he appeared in just 1 game in which he completed 2 of 2 passing attempts for 7 yards adding 2 carries for 28 yards and 1 touchdown. Skelton had a brief stint with the New Orleans Saints where he was asked to move to running back at 6’2 210 lbs. The game-play of the IFL will not necessitate a position change and will harness these talents in the best way possible. He managed just over a 55% completion rate in college totaling over 3,400 passing yards and 30 touchdowns during his time at Southern University. His transition back to quarterback should be fun to follow in 2023.
The Panthers want to win now. This is a star-studded coaching staff, they went out and matched that energy with the off-season so far. With several months still to go the Panthers might still have a couple of large moves up their sleeves to round out this roster. I expect a quick turnaround and an immediate playoff push from the Panthers.
It’s obvious to me that scheme fit and previous experience within these systems were big to the coaching staff. Bringing in three of the biggest names in the indoor football coaching realm, expectations are high for the Panthers in year one. Fans simply won’t be happy without a drastic improvement over their 1-15 record in 2022. The big question here is quarterback play, can Skelton solidify that position and lead this team to the promised land in 2023?
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