The Columbus Lions start the quest for a 2018 NAL title when 40 players will take their physicals March 23rd to begin the competition for the 21 available slots for Coach Jason Gibson’s charges.
This is Gibson’s 10th year and he knows what he will be looking for as Columbus hopes to better its 2017 runner-up position.
The very next day, the Lions will begin practice on March 24th to ready themselves for their April 13th opener against the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, also a 2017 playoff team.
It is no secret that the National Arena League focuses on the passing game and the Lions have no less than three quarterbacks and eight receivers in that initial 40-player pre-season roster and several of those players have plenty of experience.
At quarterback is returnee Mason Espinosa. Despite sharing starting time, he put together an outstanding year, accounting for 31 touchdowns for the Lions to finish 4th overall in the league.
“If you put our top two guys together last year, you can see why we lead the league in total offense,” said Gibson of his 2017 team. “We put a lot of points on the board.”
Not only was Espinosa 4th in scoring, he was also fourth in total yardage with 20 yards rushing and 1,073 passing. He also tied for the best completion percentage of any player when he hit 12 of 13 passes in one game for 92.3 percent.
This year Espinosa will be pushed by veteran Kyle Cool. Although he played for a winless Corpus Christi team, Cool managed to finish 8th in total offense and had the longest pass completion in the league last year.
“Kyle knows how to play the game and is a veteran of arena league. He was just in a tough situation there (at Corpus Christi),” Gibson said.
The third signal caller is new to the NAL but not new to Columbus football fans. Jeremy Johnson is the new invitee to 2018 and played quarterback at nearby Auburn.
“We will find out what he can do for arena football but he is an outstanding athlete,” Gibson said.
Although the Lions lost a quality receiver in Michael Reeve, two starters from last year return with impressive statistics. Jarmon Fortson, ranked No. 2 and Tristan Purifoy, ranked No. 5 in the league return at receiver.
Fortson had 72 catches with 15 touchdowns to rank No. 2 and Purifoy was 5th with 66 catches and 19 TD’s. Add that to Reeve, who was tops in the league and you have some impressive totals.
“Without a doubt we had the best receiving corps in the NAL,” said Gibson.
A third returnee is Greg Hollinger, who played in spots last year and Gibson hopes he can step up.
“He was out 4th or 5th receiver but now has a year under his belt,” said Gibson.
Five new players looking to make their mark are Arkansas State’s Daryl Bogan, Jeremy’s brother Jamel Johnson of Alabama State, Jordan Williams from Edinboro, Scott Shewmon from Wisconsin-Lacrosse and Stacy Howard from Texas A and M Commerce.
“We saw all of these guys in pre-season and liked what we saw,” said Gibson of these five new faces.