The Gridiron Developmental Football League kicks off its regular season on Saturday as the Oklahoma Thunder begin their quest to make history and become the first team to ever win back-to-back league titles.
Based on their well-decorated history, the Thunder are never lacking in motivation, but in 2017 they have more to play for than ever before.
“This year is going to be an emotional year for us,” Thunder head coach Rashid Lowe told Developmental Football USA. “We lost one of our former captains, former linebacker, he was one of our studs, Joey Crawford. He was a former Player of the Year and a long-time Thunder player. Last time he played was on the 2013 GDFL Championship team. We lost him to cancer this year, just a few weeks ago. Then, a couple of days later we lost our first head coach Bruce Madden, who helped start the Thunder and won our first three national championships.
“All in all we’ve probably lost probably five players, coaches, ownership, all together. We have a lot to play for this year. We’ll come together and see if we can pull out GDFL’s first ever back-to-back championship, that’s the plan. I tell all the teams, bring your A-Game and put your track shoes on because we’re coming.”
The Thunder hosts the Memphis Blast Saturday at 7:00 in what should be an exciting season opener for both teams. Oklahoma knocked Memphis out of the GDFL Semifinals last year, 37-11, after winning a closer 37-26 game during the regular season.
“I don’t sleep on anybody,” Lowe said. “Anybody can be beaten on any given day. Being the reigning GDFL champion, the X is on our back and everybody will be gunning for us, so we’ll have to prepare for each team the same way.”
Even though this season the Thunder will incorporate a mix of rookies with their core of seasoned veterans, don’t expect their high-powered attack to miss a beat.
“A lot of the guys that have been playing from Year 1 have gone on and retired,” Lowe said. “We have a lot of new guys coming out of college that will step in and fill in the slots, so it’s getting them to get them to mesh with each other and get them to play the same type of Thunder ball we’ve played in the past, the uptempo style of Thunder football.”
Offensively, the Thunder are led by four-time Player of the Year and former Oklahoma State Cowboy Prentiss Elliott.
“He’s still out there,” Lowe said. “He’s an explosive wide receiver that can play the inside or outside at about 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. He easily runs a 4.3 40-yard dash and he can jump out of the gym. He can make big plays on special teams, wide receivers, punt returns, kickoff, whatever. If something goes wrong and we need him on defense, he’s not scared to hit either.
“He’s our main go-to guy. When he’s hot, it’s hard to stop him. He opens the way up for Trae Johnson, former Tulsa All-American. This is his fifth year with the Thunder. He’s explosive and knows how to get open, he can jump out of the gym.”
Although the Thunder will have to make up the production lost from the departure of wide receiver and return specialist Ryan Gallimore, former Oklahoma State receiver Brandon Sheperd and former arena standout Curtis Tucker will help shore things up to round out the receiving corps.
Last year’s Oklahoma Thunder Running Back of the Year Kenny Sessions will split carries with Carlos Velasquez on the ground to balance out the offensive attack.
“We’re loaded skill wise,” Lowe said. “It’s just a matter of keeping everybody healthy and putting everybody in the right place to make plays for us.”
Defensively, veteran linebacker B.J. Hodshire is back to lead the charge for the Thunder.
“He’s been with the team probably about eight years of the 10,” Lowe said. “He’s a thumper, he can come downhill. He’s a big body, 6-4, 6-5, maybe 240 pounds. He’s slimmed down and got a little bit faster and cut up. He’ll lead the defense, he understands the back end, the front end and everything we have going.”
Up front, long, lanker pass rusher Collrett Boyd looks to lead the defensive line from the end position and bring the pressure to opposing offenses.
“I think we’ll be better on defense this year than offense,” Lowe said. “Offense is slow to catch up, but once we get everything running, the chemistry will come together and we’ll be okay.”
In the secondary, look for cornerback Deion Ruble to make plays, even some that go the distance.
“He runs a 4.2 40 and he can run with anybody,” Lowe said. “He can bait you, then come take the ball away at the last minute.”