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04/08/2019 6:38 PM

COLUMBUS, GA, April 8 -- Two-thirds of the way through his 21-day training camp, Lions Head Coach and Director of Football Operations Jason Gibson paused Saturday to rave about his offense, while reserving his comments about the defensive side of the roster for a couple of days. The Lions open the National Arena League Friday against the expansion (but revisionist) Orlando Predators, a longtime Arena Football League power and mainstay.
Gibson, he of the 111-55 (.669) career record coaching the Lions over 12 years with three league championships, feels his rebuilt offense, following several offseason defections and loss of QB Mason Espinosa to AFL Albany) describes new starter Luke Collis as a “sharp, smart, accurate veteran.” Collis, who hails from the Los Angeles area, has significant experience with the Philadelphia Soul and Tampa Bay Storm, also having won championships in AFL China and the Lone Star Football League. He also dabbled in Georgia state politics while playing with an Atlanta-area team last season, a budding post-football career to be profiled here in weeks to come.
Mitch Kidd, rookie QB competitor and fellow Californian from the University of the Redlands, impressed Gibson as “having come a long way, learned a lot while brand-new to the arena game, very studious” and a certain contributor to the Lions fortunes in 2019.
This year’s receiving corps will be topped by Bones Bagaunte, the former Massachusetts Pirates star who haunted the Lions last season. “He’s had a great training camp, catches everything,” said Gibson. Last season, Bagaunte caught 54 passes for 524 years in just 9 NAL games, scoring 15 touchdowns and returning kickoffs and missed field goals for a combined 358 more yards, including a 53-yard score. The veteran wide receiver from the University of Cincinnati is expected to be Collis’ and Kidd’s primary target.
But he’s ably accompanied by Chris Sanders-McCollum, “a big-bodied receiver (6’-4”, 225) from Tennessee State who was in camp with the NFL Titans, and Paris Mack, a rookie out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff who Gibson flatly describes as “the fastest player in the league; he’s had a fabulous training camp.” Add stalwart third-year Lion Tristan Purifoy, soon to return off an unspecified leg injury, and Desmond Reese, “a local kid from Tuskegee and Valley High School, who’d made every catch on the field.”
The offensive line makes Gibson grin from ear-to-ear, especially after having lost nine-year vet Dion Small to retirement and behemoth Nate Isles to a higher-paying offer. “We’re so deep at the O-Line that last year’s second-team all-NAL center, Rony Barrow, had shifted to fullback. “Rony’s a multi-talented young man who can play any position on the field and has an amazing attitude about helping this team win. He gives us two premier centers dressing for every game.”
The starters at center and guard? Man-mountain A.J. Harmon of University of Georgia fame is over the ball, and Lions fans remember how he tortured us while with league titlist Jacksonville in 2017. Flanking him are Southern Cal find Aundrey Walker, Manny Egunleye of Rowan College and local product Austin Hester of Georgia Military College and Shaw H.S. of Columbus. Count on the likelihood that the Lions give up the least quarterback sacks in the NAL this season.
Gibson emphasized that coaching staff continuity goes a long way, too, proudly welcoming back offensive line coach Brandon Thomas (former Lions OL), defensive line coach Robert Risdon, each for a third straight year, and defensive coordinator Brandon Reed, former San Francisco 49’er and New York Jet, for a ninth consecutive season.
The Lions home opener will be Friday, April 19, 7 p.m. vs. the Jacksonville Sharks at the Columbus Civic Center (gates open at 6 p.m.). Don’t forget to register for your chance to win a new truck from Rivertown Buick-GMC at www.columbuslions.net, and also at the Lions Fan Center prior to gametime. The first 1,000 fans receive Lions magnetic schedules, compliments of Kinetic Credit Union.