Rattlers rebuild, reload for challenge of Indoor Football League

PHOENIX — The Arizona Rattlers open their 25th season on Friday with a new league to play in, a new set of rules and an almost completely new roster.

But two things haven’t changed. Kevin Guy is still calling the shots as general manager and head coach; and winning is the expectation.

“I can tell you this: We won’t fail,” said owner Ron Shurts, who took ownership of the team six years ago. “We’re going to be successful, we’re going to win.”

Guy is in his ninth season as Rattlers head coach. In the last six since Shurts took control, the Rattlers have won 100 games and lost 23. They played in five Arena Football League championship games and won three.

But shortly after suffering a 56-42 loss to the Philadelphia Soul in the Arena Bowl XXIX, Shurts and Guy met to plot the future of the franchise and decided it would no longer be in the AFL.

With franchises in Los Angeles, Portland, Jacksonville and Orlando ceasing operations, the Arena League is down to five teams, none further west than Cleveland.

For Shurts, the only realistic option was to shift the team to the 10-team Indoor Football League — a collection of teams that stretches from Green Bay, Wis., to Spokane, Wash.

“I needed to make a business decision No. 1,” Shurts said, “and No. 2, I needed to make a decision around what was important for the fans and the city of Phoenix, and for the Arizona Rattlers and to make sure that we would continue to part of something viable.”

The Rattlers are introduced to their new brethren on Friday with a road game in Sioux Falls, S.D., against the six-time defending champion Sioux Falls Storm.

“At the end of that we get to see where we’re at and measure ourselves right out of the gate, where we’re at as an organization and where we’ve got to go,” Guy said.

The IFL has different rules than the Arena league, and Guy said fans will recognize that it looks and plays more like traditional outdoor football. Defensive rules make the running game a more integral part of offense.

“It’s going to be more like football,” Guy said. “They’re going to be able to identify with it a little more.”

The roster makeup reflects the difference between the two leagues. The defense includes a middle linebacker and a free safety. On offense, Guy set about finding a true tailback and a mobile quarterback.

Only five players return from last season’s roster:  Defensive backs Arkeith Brown, Josh Atkinson and Allen Chapman, defensive end Chris McAllister and wide receiver Anthony Amos.

“We’ve not only had to rebuild the roster, we’ve had to develop a whole new playbook on offense, a whole new playbook on defense. It’s been a little bit more difficult than I thought, but that’s what we signed up for,” Guy said.

“There are a lot of little nuances you’ve got to learn that are different than the Arena League. We’ve got some things we’re going to bring from the Arena League that they haven’t seen before. Should be interesting strategy wise, and we’re going to be playing some mind games.”

Nick Davila, who passed for 766 touchdowns in seven seasons as Rattlers quarterback, has retired as a player and joined Guy’s staff as quarterbacks and wide receivers coach.

Guy did not name a starting quarterback prior to the opener. The three quarterbacks on the roster are Darron Thomas, who played collegiately at Oregon, Jon Wolf (Mankato State) and Cody Sokol (Louisiana Tech).

Guy said the Rattlers are not approaching their inaugural IFL season as if they are an expansion team.

“I told the guys the first night, this is not a three-year plan, this is to win right now,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’re an expansion team. Nothing’s really changed on how we do things around here. It’s just a new roster.”

Seven of the Rattlers home games will be televised on FOX Sports Arizona Plus, starting with the home opener vs. the Iowa Barnstormers on Sunday, Feb. 26. The complete broadcast schedule follows:

Sunday, Feb. 26: Iowa Barnstormers, 3 p.m.

Saturday, April 1: Wichita Falls Nighthawks, 6 pm.

Saturday, April 22: Spokane Empire, 6 p.m.

Saturday, April 29: Green Bay Blizzard, 6 p.m.

Saturday, May 20: Salt Lake City Screaming Eagles, 6 p.m.

Sunday, May 28: Nebraska Danger, 3 p.m.

Sunday, June 11: Cedar Rapids Titans, 3 p.m.