Sioux Falls Storm hope to return to Indoor Football contention behind roster filled with newcomers
Longtime quarterback Lorenzo Brown back to run offense
SIOUX FALLS — The Sioux Falls Storm have won 11 indoor football championships, but their most recent one, in 2019, was perhaps the most satisfying. It came after they had lost consecutive United Bowls in 2017 and 2018, and it came on the home field of an undefeated Arizona Rattlers team that had fully expected to cruise to the title. And it proved that Sioux Falls could still be an IFL power even though the league had shifted towards bigger markets that figured to take a bite out of the Storm's utter dominance of it.
But as significant as that win was, it also served as an example of how much harder it was going to be for Sioux Falls to remain at the top of the indoor game in this new era. Sure enough, when the league resumed after taking 2020 off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Storm went 6-7 in 2021 and 8-8 last season.
For a franchise that once knew nothing but unbridled success — winning consecutive championships from 2005-2008 and again from 2011-2016, it's been a frustrating decline. Competition from other leagues — both indoor and outdoor — has had an impact. So, too, has the IFL's expansion into larger cities and in some cases warmer climates, not to mention franchises that have favorable alliances with hockey or basketball teams in their area. Where once the Storm had their pick of available free agents, now longtime coach Kurtiss Riggs at times finds Sioux Falls a tougher sell.
So as Riggs prepares for his 19th season at the helm, which kicks off Saturday when the Storm visit the Quad City Steamwheelers, he's starting fresh. The Storm have an almost entirely new roster in 2023, with newcomers and rookies expected to play a huge role on offense and defense. Only one player on the roster has more than two years of post-college experience. The one? Quarterback Lorenzo Brown, who returns to the lead the offense after a year away. The former USF standout and 13-year pro is now 35, and will be serving in something of a player/coach role as the team's starting quarterback and most experienced player.
"I'm still having fun and I feel like if I'm still able to physically and mentally do it, I should do it," said Brown, who has won five championships with the Storm, three as starting quarterback. "It'll be good for me to be a role model and an outlet for the young guys, which will hopefully set myself up for the next phase of my football career as a coach. I'm focused on being the best I can be for myself and for the guys on this team."
To keep with the theme of having experienced leadership to support the young roster, Riggs' staff is full of familiar faces. The defense will be run by a trio of Storm greats and former teammates: Longtime assistant Andre Fields takes over as defensive coordinator, while Cory Johnsen is back for his seventh year coaching the D-line (and 17th straight year with the team counting his playing days). Hall of Famer Mark Blackburn will coach the linebackers.
On offense, Riggs has installed his son, 23-year-old Peyton Riggs, to be his offensive coordinator and receivers coach. Peyton has worked with his father's Riggs Academy and spent the past fall as an offensive analyst and scout for Kalen DeBoer at Washington. Former USF running back Kristian Porter returns for his second season coaching that position, while former Augustana guard Nick Pappas takes over as O-line coach.
As for the roster, Riggs admits he's anxious to see who emerges as the playmakers, on both sides of the ball.
Running back Tayvon Ruley is the one skill guy everyone seems to be high on, while Donnie Corley returns at wideout after recording 10 touchdown catches last year. Jaetavian Toles, a 6-1, 195-pound receiver out of Tulane, a former Division II All-American at Chadron State, could also catch their share of passes.
Brown, who once led the IFL in rushing yards in addition to his work as a passer, isn't the same dual threat he was in his 20s, but has lost 15 pounds since last year (when he played in the CIFL with Sioux City) and can still put some zip on the ball, and he's confident he can carry the offense.
On defense, Undraez Lilly returns after notching 9.5 sacks and 48 tackles last year, while 6-2, 305-pound nose tackle Chima Dunga is also back. Kyree Campbell, who was a starter for the Florida Gators and had 110 career tackles there, should strengthen the D-line, while Fields will be working with an almost entirely new secondary.
But lack of experience doesn't mean lack of talent. Coaches are high on linebacker James Brown and safety Eugene Ford, whom Riggs says will be the catalysts of the defense. They're two of a handful of players that were brought in to make the team more athletic, with the hope that the veteran coaching staff can get them up to speed quickly.
"We felt like we were average at too many positions last year," Riggs said. "We got better on both sides of the ball. We're young, but that's where having Lorenzo is so important. Having a veteran quarterback gives you an edge - you walk onto the field with an advantage because of him."
With the addition of the Tulsa Oilers, the IFL is up to 14 teams this year. The Storm are one of seven in the Eastern Conference, joining the Frisco Fighters, Massachusetts Pirates, Quad City Steamwheelers, Green Bay Blizzard, Tulsa and the Iowa Barnstormers. Northern Arizona is the reigning IFL champion.
After visiting Quad City on Saturday the Storm host Iowa on Sunday, April 9 in their home opener. Kick-off is set for 5:05 p.m.