Wednesday’s joint practice between the Tucson Sugar Skulls and Arizona Rattlers served its purpose: It gauged where each team stands with the Indoor Football League season just weeks away.
The Sugar Skulls may have showed they belong in the IFL after falling to the Rattlers 30-24 in the scrimmage at the Kino Sports Complex.
The Sugar Skulls are one of two expansion teams to join the IFL, while the Rattlers can be classified as one of the league’s all-time great franchises. The Rattlers have only missed the playoffs three times since 1993, and are the only team to have won a title in both the IFL and Arena Football League under head coach Kevin Guy, the Sugar Skulls’ co-owner.
The Sugar Skulls, meanwhile, have been around since Sunday. (That’s when they began their first-ever training camp.)
“The (Rattlers) are one of the big dogs in this league, but I’m happy with the work and how we came out considering the amount of time that we’ve been here,” Tucson coach Marcus Coleman said. “I thought guys adjusted to the speed of the game because there are guys that have never played indoor football before.”
During position drills at the joint practice, opposing players talked smack and stared each other down, but also shook hands and exchanged jokes.
The Rattlers appeared more fine-tuned during one-on-one drills. But it was the expansion Sugar Skulls who walked away with more confidence: To play an elite team to within a touchdown bodes well for a team scheduled to open its season March 3 in San Diego against the Strike Force.
“We’ve only been together for what, four days and five practices? Those guys have been at it for two weeks and some of them for years so for us to come out and only get beat by six points, that says a lot about our will, our push and how hard we’ve been working,” Sugar Skulls quarterback Tasleem Wilson said.
Wilson started at quarterback Tucson alongside former Rattlers running back Shadrach Thornton and wide receivers Alex Wheat Jr., Donovan Rasberry and Brandon Sampson. The offensive line included Tucson High graduate and former San Diego State tackle Antonio Rosales, along with Moses Mondesir and Sahuarita native Alex Rios.
Wilson was intercepted on his second pass of the series, which resulted in a 36-yard touchdown return for the Rattlers defense. That gave Arizona a two-score lead after Rattlers quarterback Verlon Reed Jr., who played collegiately at Ohio State, connected with receiver Jarrod Harrington for a 16-yard touchdown.
Domonique Harris, a 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound quarterback, found Shaquan Curenton on a post route for a 40-yard touchdown to get the Sugar Skulls back within one score.
The Rattlers and Sugar Skulls teeter-tottered for the rest of the scrimmage. Rasberry hauled in a 19-yard touchdown from quarterback Bryan Hicks, who joined after playing for the Green Bay Blizzard in 2018. Wilson checked back into the game at quarterback threw a six-yard touchdown to Wheat.
Defensively, the Sugar Skulls’ first unit included former Wake Forest and Iowa Barnstormers standout Zachary Allen as the anchor linebacker. Tucsonan Cam Gaddis — nicknamed “Zona Boy” by his teammates — got the start at cornerback with former Texas Tech cornerback Nigel Bethel on the other side, while Jonah McCutcheon and Carlos Anderson rounded out the secondary.
Tucson’s defensive linemen included Rusmin Nikocevic, Shakore Philip and LaTreze Mushatt. Nikocevic had a key fouth-down sack, while Allen returned a fumble for a touchdown.
Gaddis said he saw some encouraging things.
“The league better watch out because we’re coming,” Gaddis said. “All of us don’t know each other and we’re already meshing, it’s just crazy. It’s natural.”
Coleman’s postgame message to his team: Continue playing with the new-guy-with-something-to-prove mentality. The hunters, not the hunted.
“I don’t want to say, ‘Well we’re just the new kid on the block.’ Arizona has been established for 26 years and they’ve won championships in this league and the AFL,” Coleman said. “For us, we’re new at this. … We have to teach our guys that we can get to that level. I enjoy the hunt. I don’t mind being the underdog. I like hunting because at the end of the day, I want to be a champion.”
The Sugar Skulls got the message.
“You can’t eat if you don’t hunt. My definition of hunting is to eat. And by eat I mean that the other team is the food. In order to eat, you gotta eat food,” Allen said.
Wednesday was supposed to be an afternoon of learning from the “top dogs.” It may have become a sign of what’s to come.
“We got the heart of a lion,” Wilson said. “We’re going to hunt and we’re going to kill. We’re coming to dominate week in and week out, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is.”