The NAL Quarterbacks of 2020
As the Massachusetts Pirates and the rest of us wait for the start of the 2020 National Arena League season, I decided it was time to get my broadcast partner, JJ Raterink, involved. What better way than to have him give us some insight on most of the quarterbacks in the league. For those who don't know his credentials, Raterink is one of the all-timers in arena football.
The former University of Wyoming quarterback played professionally for 12 seasons in the Arena Football League, AF2, Indoor Football League and the China Arena Football League. After setting records for the Quad City Steamwheelers (AF2) for career passing yards (11,152) and career touchdown passes (233), Raterink went on to a six-year career in the AFL. Along the way he broke Kurt Warner's records with the Iowa Barnstormers for passing yards in a season (4,870) and touchdown passes in a season (93) set in 2012. When the AFL ceased operation after the 2019 season, Raterink still ranked among the leaders in several categories.
17th in career passing yards 19,940
17th with 689 completions. Led the league with 413 in 2012 (14th best all-time)
19th in passing yards in a season, 4870
20th in career passing touchdowns, 361
In 2011 and 2012 Raterink led the AFL in passing attempts and attempted 56 for Iowa vs. Tampa Bay on June 14, 2014 which ranks tied for seventh for attempts in a game.
The following is a list of all the QB's who are slated to go to camp with each NAL team. I called Raterink at his home in Colorado and asked JJ for comments on those he has played against or covered as a broadcaster.
The Cobras currently have three quarterbacks listed on their roster. James Summers is one of them. Summers appeared in six games last season as a receiver and had six receptions for 117 yards and four touchdowns. Summers, who did play quarterback at East Carolina, also had seven carries for 18 yards and a touchdown. Summers appeared in five pre-season games as a running back with the Arizona Cardinals and had a look from the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining Carolina last season.
Sam Castranova played at NAIA Bethel University in Tennessee. In 2018 his offense averaged 54.4 points per game. After attending workouts by the Buffalo Bills, CFL teams and the XFL Showcase, Castranova signed with the Cobras in November of 2019.
The QB with arena experience is Grant Russell. In 2019 Russell was assigned to the Baltimore Brigade and later was traded to the Columbus Destroyers. That's where Raterink first saw him.
"I was broadcasting in the AFL when he was playing for the Columbus Destroyers and they were in Albany playing in front of an electric crowd. It was opening night, the place was packed, I couldn't even hear myself think. Grant stepped in, I believe it was the second quarter and for a rookie who had not played in the AFL, I was extremely impressed with his poise and his confidence. He came in right away and threw a touchdown, but there was one play in that game that I remember. Normally with young quarterbacks the jack linebacker causes the most issues just because it's an oddity how they disrupt and changes their throws. Grant stepped up in the pocket after getting some pressure. The jack linebacker ran to the field and was taking away the hitch route to the wall. 99 percent of quarterbacks, especially rookies, would have probably thrown it and hit the jack linebacker right in the hands, but Grant recognized it and, on the run, had one of the nicest touch passes that I had seen. Right then and there I said this guy already had developed some knowledge of this game. With some more time and experience I think he's going to be a special player," Raterink said.
Like Carolina, Columbus currently has three quarterbacks on the roster. Two have been with the team before and the other has NAL experience.
Matthew Foltz is the tallest quarterback in the league at 6'7." He played one game for Carolina last season going 10 of 14 for 86 yards and a touchdown. In 2018 he played in three games for Lehigh Valley.
Darren Daniel played in nine games for the Lions in 2017 and was 147 of 245 for 60.0 percent with seven interceptions. He threw for 1611 yards with 38 touchdowns. Daniel was also with the Lions in 2015 and 2016 when they competed in other leagues.
"I don't know as much about Darren but I know one thing, if you are coming into camp, you're not always satisfied to be the backup so I have zero doubt that using his experience, he'll come in to compete," Raterink said.
Daniel and Foltz will be competing against Mason Espinosa who was an All-NAL second team performer in 2017 leading the Lions to the Championship game vs. Jacksonville. This past season Espinosa was the backup QB for the AFL champion Albany Empire where in four games he was 17 of 21 for 208 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Raterink said, "I remember a couple years ago when I first started doing the games for the Pirates, watching Mason, one of the things that impressed me about him was that he seemed very cool and calm. It was a close game and he just seemed really relaxed. Sometimes you take inventory of the quarterbacks' emotions and demeanor and Mason just kept that steady heartbeat throughout the whole thing. His play and knowledge of the game is very evident when he's out there so Columbus I'm sure very happy to have him."
The Sharks currently only have one quarterback listed on their roster and it's the player who led them to the National Arena League crown last season; Mike Fafaul.
In 11 games Fafaul was 123 of 183 for 1319 yards for 35 touchdowns with five interceptions. In the post season, the former UCLA quarterback led the Sharks to the title as he was 25 of 35 for 275 yards, six TD's and two interceptions, including his touchdown pass to Durron Neal with seven seconds to play to give Jacksonville a 52-48 come from behind victory over Carolina for the Championship. Raterink knows they will need to add some insurance for the signal caller who began his arena career in 2018 with the Albany Empire.
"Jacksonville is in good hands there," Raterink said. "They will want to bring someone in. You have to have a couple of quarterbacks. I was able to watch Mike last year and I thought he did a really nice job. I've watched his career at UCLA. Sometimes the guys who play at those big schools like that, you're always curious how someone's going to react or adjust and I thought Mike did a fantastic job of that as evidenced by what he did with the team at the end of the year. From what I saw Mike is the kind of player who will pick up where he left off, so there are exciting things for Jacksonville and their fans on the horizon," he added.
The Flight have secured to veteran quarterbacks for their first season in the NAL with Warren Smith and Danny Southwick.
Smith was the NAL MVP in 2017 leading the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks to the playoffs. The seven-year arena veteran won an AFL title with the Washington Valor in 2017 and last season played with the Atlantic City Blackjacks of the AFL completing 84 of 126 passes for 994 yards with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
"I know him well," Raterink said. "I played against Warren. I think if you had to use one word to describe him its "competitor." I was actually broadcasting a game last year in the AFL, I believe it was his first start of the season and they were in Albany, who ended up being the Arena Bowl champions, and I talked to him before the game. You could just see, as they say, the fire in his eyes; you could just see it with Warren. Even though the game was two hours from starting, he was ready to go right then and there. He didn't even need to put on the equipment," he added.
Danny Southwick has even more experience. Like Smith, Southwick played in the AFL last season with the Columbus Destroyers completing 10 of 17 passes for 123 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Southwick has played for 14 different arena franchises since 2008. Raterink is impressed with Southwick's resolve.
"What I love about that is he's still giving hope to the rest of us that have climbed the age ladder experientially, that we can still play and still run around with these young guys. It's not surprising though as Danny is a very cerebral player. He knows the game inside and out. He knows all the throws and he's the kind of guy that you can bring in at any point. You can plug him into the system and he would know it. He'd make the right reads and make the right decisions. That will be interesting. Two very good veterans competing for the job there," said Raterink.
Here is where this story created its own sidebar. As a journalist having covered arena football since 1997, I know a good comeback story when I see one. Here I was talking to one of arena football's all-timers who still works out on a regular basis. Now if Danny Southwick is going to play, I had to ask the question to Raterink, when was he going to play?
After gales of laughter Raterink said, "People say are you done, have you retired? No player in their right mind just says, "Yes I'm done." Everyone always has that little cliff-hanger, that little cavate. "Well, if this (or that) happens, I could be coerced into doing it. So, like I said, Danny still playing kind of gives me hope and maybe more than hope; inspiration. I'm not going to sign the retirement papers yet. That's a big thank you to Danny for continuing to play," Raterink said.
The fact is in 2018, four of the six teams in the NAL tried to coax Raterink out of the broadcast booth and back onto the field, but he elected to keep the headset on.
"It's always a nice complement. It's a huge complement and you don't take the lightly," said the QB who's last team was the Baltimore Brigade in 2017. "You're very genuine in your appreciation of that. Sometimes, unfortunately, demographically or financially with your job, it's just tough to find that balance, but again if the situation were right and I could balance it with my schedule, and the opportunity arose for me to put the pads on one more time, I know I would," he added.
The Pirates currently have just one QB on their roster as 2018 MVP Sean Brackett was released to throw in front of NFL scouts. As of this date he has not re-signed, but the understanding is unless he is signed to an NFL contract that he will be back with the Pirates.
The quarterback who is under contract is Alejandro Bennifield who has an arm like a cannon. Bennifield started one game last year going 16 of 30 for 171 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 50 - 35 victory over the New York Streets. Raterink was impressed with what he saw from Bennifield.
"I remember watching him last year warming up before a game and I had never seen somebody in person like that. I've seen guys do it like Michael Vick where it was effortless, watching their throwing motion, but the ball just absolutely leaped off his hand. I watched him (Bennifield) warming up full-field and it almost looked like he was just flicking with his wrist. It was unbelievable. He didn't need a windup or anything. I'm thinking my arm needs two throws to get it that far and he's doing it with a fraction of his arm. I actually visited with a coach of his from college who said as far as his arm talent, no one in his years of coaching had the kind of arm talent that Alejandro displayed," Raterink said.
As for Brackett, the Massachusetts area is home for the five-year arena veteran who has played in more NAL regular season games (27) than any of the QB's currently on an NAL roster. Raterink knows Brackett's roots are in New England.
"Even the Massachusetts Pirates are hoping that becomes a fruitful tryout for him. That being said I know that's a special place for him. He was their first quarterback two years ago. He's been the starting quarterback since the inauguration. They've been close and they've felt like they've had the teams to win a championship and so there is that drive and that desire within Sean. If it doesn't work out with the tryout, he will be back. I would be absolutely shocked to see him go anywhere else and keeping up with social media, watching all of his posts, I don't think I've seen too many posts without Massachusetts Pirates apparel being worn or some sort of promotion for them," he said.
I, however, did see him wearing a Las Vegas Outlaws t-shirt during one workout video. Brackett and Raterink were teammates in Las Vegas.
"We were teammates his is first year in arena football and I'm glad he's still representing the good days of Las Vegas," Raterink said. "Watching him throw the first day, watching the mechanics, the footwork, the quick release, the strong arm, no wasted motion; it was really impressive to see all of the tutelage he had obviously had over the years and how he had applied it, because everything he did from a mechanical standpoint was about as close to flawless as you could be. He was someone that was very well coached and trained prior to that and it was just a matter of time for him to adjust to the arena game. Sean's an Ivy League guy, he went to Columbia, so the mental aspect he was going to pick up. It was just a matter of combining the mental aspect of the game with a few of the different throws and nuances and Sean picked it up about as quick as any rookie that I had seen over my career," he added.
Both quarterbacks under contract have some arena football experience.
Patrick O'Brien out of Catawba College in North Carolina signed with the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football in 2019 and saw limited action with the Philadelphia Soul of the AFL last season. He appeared in two games completing 8 of 22 passes for 52 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
The other is Rakeem Cato, former Marshall University record holder with over 14 thousand yards and 131 TD passes. He played parts of two seasons in the Canadian Football League in 2015 and 2016. The following season he played in one game with Richmond in the American Arena League and in 2019 threw 11 touchdown passes in the title game leading the Gulf Coast Fire to an A-League arena title.
"I think in Orlando you have a situation where you have a wide-open quarterback competition. The one thing when you bring in guys who are rookies or they haven't played as much, it's usually about as unbiased a training camp and evaluation as there is. They will be excited to get down there and I would almost bet the reps will be 50/50, hopefully they will get to play with all different types of receivers and line combinations. Coaches can see how they do with different lines, to use a hockey term. That will be a really fun one to watch. As a former player who's been around a lot, I love watching the younger quarterbacks compete and develop so that will be interesting for me personally to keep my eye on and I would think for a lot of the fans of the NAL," said Raterink.
West Virginia Roughriders
After going undefeated and winning the American Arena League title last year, West Virginia now joins the National Arena League. The only quarterback currently on their roster is no stranger to arena football fans.
Arvell Nelson, the MVP of Arena Bowl XXXI with the Washington Valor, joins the Roughriders for the second time. He was with them when they played in Richmond, VA in 2018 before helping Washington to an AFL title that same season. Last season in Washington, Nelson was 240 of 412 for 2,980 yards, 54 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Nelson threw 236 TD passes in seven AFL seasons.
"I watched him jump on the arena scene," Raterink said. "I want to say Pittsburgh was one of the first places I saw him and he was actually backing up Tommy Grady. He was so athletic. He could play jack linebacker and he could play wide receiver. He was doing a drill where he was holding a ball in his off hand and then a ball in his right hand. He would take a drop. It was a drill I had never seen and I did it and I didn't realize it's such an odd drill, it was kind of difficult and watching how he did it with ease, I thought this guy probably has more talent and is pretty special. Then he got his opportunity in Cleveland a few years later and really did a nice job. He does a lot of things really well. One of the things is he puts a lot of pressure on the defense not only with that strong arm, but he can also use his legs to get out. He has an AFL Championship under his belt with Washington. That team was in need of someone to come in and take the reins and take charge. They had a lot of really talented players but they needed someone on the field to corral that and Arvell was the perfect fit. His play and his ability to maneuver especially in that Arena Bowl was what helped Washington to come out on top over Baltimore. West Virginia has got themselves a good one," he said.
After looking at every quarterback in the league, it appears the NAL teams have secured some exceptional talent to play one of the most demanding positions and Raterink agrees.
"It's one of the toughest positions, but I think it takes a special type of person to play it. Besides the physical part of the game, having to be an athlete where you perform all of the physical qualities and traits that are necessary, the mental part, and I just don't mean the verbiage and communication, is being able to absorb everything or block out what you need to. Be it on the road in a hostile environment, whether it be when things are going wrong and you have to be the guy that they look to, so it's certainly in my opinion, the toughest position, I would argue, in all of sports because of everything that goes with it. I know that's why I signed up to play it. I know that people do view it as a very valuable position for the obvious reasons. What I see is that the NAL has a lot of really good experienced veterans who know the game but as usual you've got these younger guys coming up who are trying to get themselves in there trying to make a name for themselves, so the competition will be strong and it will be a lot of fun for all of the fans to watch," Raterink said.
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National Arena League Stories from May 11, 2020
- The NAL Quarterbacks of 2020 - Massachusetts Pirates
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