In the ever-changing and ever-evolving game of football, teams, players and coaches are always learning from each other, whether intentionally or naturally.
Even though the Erie Express didn’t bring home any hardware in 2016, with a 7-5 season that ended in the second round of the Premier Amateur Football League playoffs, there is much for other developmental teams to learn from this professionally run organization.
Spend just 60 seconds on their Facebook page or their team website, and you’ll quickly learn that they have a much different identity and hold themselves to a higher standard than most teams you’ll find at this level.
“I do my best to promote the Erie Express as a professional team,” Express owner Paul Pennington told Developmental Football USA. “Our guys are not allowed to take the field if they do not match. We have two-toned silver and red helmets and every player will have that. All facemasks must match and all uniforms must match or you won’t step on the field. I think it speaks volumes as an organization to express yourself as a professional.”
One key commonality at the developmental level is that teams generally have a mission to provide opportunities for players to take their games to the next level. For the Express, this is one pitch they certainly follow through with.
“We’ve had a 57 pro contracts signed by our players,” Pennington said. “We promote the heck out of our guys. We make sure they always have up-to-date pictures, film, and stats. It’s all just a text message away from any potential scout. If that’s the avenue they are pursuing, we make sure to help them out in that area.”
The Express have had players sign to the Cleveland Gladiators of the Arena Football League, the Spokane Empire of the Indoor Football League and even had one player sign with the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League.
“Moe Williams is the only one that’s signed an NFL contract,” Pennington said. “He signed with the Indianapolis Colts and got released, but he did get signed. At the indoor level, you name a team and we’ve probably signed a guy to play there.”
While developmental football is an avenue for players to advance their careers and continue chasing their dreams, a good chunk of every team’s roster is usually just guys that simply can’t get enough of their favorite game.
“Then, we’ve got guys that just love the game of football and we give them an opportunity to keep playing,” Pennington said. “If you’re trying to go pro, I support that 100 percent and will do everything I can to make that a reality. If you’re just here to have fun, I support that 100 percent and will do everything I can to make that a reality.
“I never hold anybody to their contract. If a guy isn’t happy here, you’re free to go, as long as I get my stuff back.”
Like every football team, at the end of the day Erie wants to win games and win a championship, which is no easy task for any team in the deeply-talented PAFL.
“I think we can hold our own against anybody,” Pennington said. “We’ve proven that in the past. I would say your top team is the defending champion WPA Wildcatz, they took the boots to us and everyone else last year. They won the PAFL and a national championship. We get an opportunity to see them this year.
“Other than that, I would think the Columbus Fire. They’re always a solid team, always in contention. They won multiple championships when the league was the Heartland Football League. We’ve got the Cobras this week, that’s who we face. They’re always a tough team. The Ohio Raiders, on paper. You’ve got the Predators, the Predators were a playoff team last year and the Ohio Golden Knights, but he’s added a lot of players to that roster. I think the Raiders will make some noise this season.”
With two pre-season games under their belts, the Express will head into league play with a 2-0 record as Erie has already shut out the Pittsburgh Buccaneers 20-0 and beaten the Strabane Spartans 19-3.
“We’re a strong team,” Pennington said. “If we work out the kinks we’ve experienced the first two weeks of the season, I think we’ll be just fine, but there were some major kinks that we’ve got to get corrected.”
One question they’re looking to answer on Saturday is the situation at running back.
“We will still be fighting an uphill battle this week at running back,” Pennington said. “Our top running back, Allen Jones, is out this week and our No. 2 running back has requested to be released, so that puts us to putting our fullback as our starting tailback, but he’s solid. Akeem Satterfield, he was an All-American at Slippery Rock University and Cal Franklin, he played at Edinboro University. Those guys are going to get the bulk of the carries at running back.”
Jones had been the league-leading rusher for the past two years, so the Express will look to make up for his production on Saturday.
“We have two All-Pro receivers returning, Terry Jackson from Southern University and Javon Rowan from Indiana University of Pennylvania,” Pennington said. “We lost Moe Williams, Moe played at Pitt and right now he’s playing for the Jacksonville Sharks. Moe is something special.”
The potential return of Williams will likely be determined by how far the currently-undefeated Sharks go in the National Arena League playoffs.
At quarterback, Corey McWilliams is taking the reigns for Chance Anzivine who has returned to college.
“Corey McWilliams is doing a real nice job for us,” Pennington said. “He brings that element with his legs that Chance didn’t have. Chance was more of a true pocket passer, whereas Corey can move around.”
Defensively, the Express fields a group of veterans with former college experience that have led the team for the past several seasons
“Our defense holds us,” Pennington said. “We ask our offense to do enough to put some points on the board, but the defense is going to carry us through the day. That’s the way it’s been since I’ve been here. The defense has held it down for the most part and the offense does what it needs to do to get us some points.”
Dajuan Smith has been a mainstay along the defensive line and has 77 career sacks to show for it.
“Head coach Reggie Hightower likes to rotate guys a lot, so it’s a revolving door, especially on the defensive front,” Pennington said. “As a former offensive lineman, you like to see the same guy play after play so you can learn his tendencies and counter that. When you have to see four or five different guys throughout the game, it makes it kind of tough. Reggie does a good job at putting guys in a position to capitalize on their individual abilities.
The linebackers are led by two All-Pros in Tony D’Alboro – who has more than 400 career tackles, and McKinnon.
“In the secondary, we’ve got Derrell Fincher from Edinboro University,” Pennington said. “He’s got 26 career interceptions and Ashton Jones from Gannon University. Last year, Ashton had a torn labrum in his shoulder and player with it all season. After the season, he had it repaired and he hasn’t missed a beat.”
It’s shaping up to be an exciting year for the Express in the PAFL, which Pennington believes is the best league in the region for his team.
“I want to throw some praise to Jermaine Campbell for putting together a great league,” Pennington said. “We’re happy to be a part of it. He’s the commissioner and he’s also commissioner of the Ohio Football League. He runs a great league, we’re happy in this league. After having playing Strabane last week, those guys gave us everything we could handle. They were playing good football. You’ve got to give credit to them for putting it on us. That league has tremendous teams in it. There’s definitely teams in there that can hang with PAFL teams.”