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Defensive backs find way to the forefront

Once the Storm's weak area because of injuries and rookie mistakes, DBs are gradually improving.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


TAMPA -- Playing defensive back in Arena Football, because of its reliance on man-to-man coverage, has been likened to being on an island. The secret to surviving is simple: Don't get voted off.

"No position has a higher turnover rate in the game than this one," Storm defensive back Tommy Henry said. "There are guys coming and going all the time."

Naturally, says coach Tim Marcum. "Everyone," he said, "is looking for that great cover guy."

Problem is, few exist, which the Storm has found out in its quest to replace former big-play hero and current Oakland Raider Johnnie Harris. But while the Storm doesn't have that lock-down-the-other-team's-best defensive back, but its group is gradually improving and slowly emerging from its season-long status as the weak link.

"We're getting better as a whole," Henry said. "Considering what we had to overcome with all kinds of injuries, it just took a while to jell."

When the Storm came to camp, the defensive backfield was the least of the concerns. Henry, an All-Rookie selection in 1999, and Melvin Cunningham, on the All-Arena second team, returned.

With a trio of talented rookies to learn behind the returning stars, the Storm figured to have one of the league's better groups. But Cunningham sustained a season-ending injury in the preseason, Henry has had to cover the high-motion man for the first time and hasn't been as good as last season, and the rookies -- Michael Feagin, Jami Oats and Isreal Byrd -- were thrust into more prominent roles.

And when Byrd went down last month with a hamstring injury, Oats became a starter. A defensive back in college at South Carolina State, Oats never had to cover a man who was given a 15-yard head start behind the line of scrimmage.

"I definitely needed some time to see what was going on," Oats said. "I used to watch the game on TV, and I thought, man, how can they cover a man who's moving in motion full speed like that. It's hard. Coming from a big field to Arena Football, you really have to adjust."

Antoine Worthman was brought in because he knew the system, helping stabilize the group with his veteran leadership. A coach on the field, his recent run of good play has seemed to rub off on the entire backfield.

In the past three weeks, Worthman has returned an interception for a touchdown to seal a win against Orlando, Oats returned one for a score against Milwaukee and then batted a potential game-winning touchdown out of Jarrick Hillery's hands in the final seconds last week, and Henry has set the league record for passes defensed in a season.

Those plays and statistics would seem to indicate the backfield has come of age, which Henry thinks it has.

"I don't agree with that weak link stuff," Henry said. "Right now as a secondary I think we are as strong as any other in the league. ... We are not the weak link."

Marcum agrees -- to a point.

"I'm not going to say, yeah, we're much better," Marcum said. "We're improving a little bit, but we're still not where we need to be. We still make too many mistakes."

It is a typical coach-player gap. Henry points to the numbers, the fact that the Storm allows fewer passing yards than anyone but Florida, and Marcum will counter that the league-leading Bobcats have lost eight straight and are not going to the playoffs.

Henry can point to Worthman's 17 tackles, a team record set two weeks ago against Milwaukee, or Oats' interception return in the same game, and Marcum will counter that the Storm lost.

"Coach, he still doesn't have the level of confidence in us, but I believe with each game and as the season goes on he's getting more," Oats said.

Henry thinks its just the nature of the position.

"When it's all said and done, the DBs will always get most of the blame," Henry said. "I think we got something to prove and, in particular, I have something to prove. We have some good numbers, I just really don't think we get the credit we deserve. But once we get to the playoffs, it will be a whole different story."

Tonight: Storm at Carolina

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30; Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena.

TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WDAE-AM 620.

RECORD: Carolina 3-10, Storm 7-6.

COACHES: Storm, Tim Marcum (124-36, 12th season); Carolina, Doug Kay (3-10, first season).

SERIES: Storm leads 1-0.

NOTES: The Storm can clinch a home playoff game against either Milwaukee, Grand Rapids or Oklahoma tonight with a win over the expansion Cobras. Even with a loss and a Milwaukee loss, the Storm can host. If it loses and Milwaukee wins, the Storm will open the playoffs on the road. The Cobras have improved since acquiring Fred McNair from Florida, and are dangerous, as evidenced by their 40-0 halftime lead last week over New Jersey and two-point losses to Arizona and Orlando. But as good as they were last week in beating New Jersey, the Cobras allowed Ricky Foggie to come off the bench and complete 18-of-22 passes for 314 yards and seven scores. The Cobras pass defense is the league's worst. Storm QB John Kaleo has his best game of the year against Carolina in an earlier win by Tampa Bay, completing 23-of-28 for 294 yards in his first start. Kaleo has the highest pass rating of his career and is three touchdown passes shy of his career high of 48, set in 1996. James Bowden (team-high 63 catches and 779 yards) returned last week and remains Kaleo's favorite target, though Lawrence Samuels is the team's top money receiver with 17 touchdowns. This game matches the league's 14th- (Tampa Bay) and 15th-rated offenses, but the Storm's overall defense is No. 3 and Carolina is 16th (out of 17 teams). WR Wayne Walker needs one yard to reach 1,000 all-purpose yards, which would make him the fifth to reach that level and second this year (James Bowden has 1,544). WR/DB Jason Dulick is out for the year with a neck injury. Tickets for the Storm's first playoff game, if at the Ice Palace, are on sale; call (813) 301-6600.

-- Compiled by John C. Cotey.

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