A new challenge2/5/2020
Iowa Barnstormers enter 2020 with a new coach and some big shoes to fill.
Semi-pro indoor football is a fast-paced game of constant change.
Just when you thought a battle has been won, it isn’t. On a 60-yard field, with eight players per team, leads disappear faster than a can of Busch Light in Ames. Bodies careen off the boards. Things happen. Welcome to the Indoor Football League.
The IFL’s season won’t officially begin until March, but Iowa Barnstormer defensive back Jeremy Gloston is ready. And yesterday wasn’t early enough. Anything to take his mind off this winter weather. Born and raised in Orlando, Florida, Gloston is no fan of January and February in the heartland.
“The cold ain’t good; the snow ain’t good,” he joked. “It ain’t good at all. I’m ready to play.”
The first order of business will be reclaiming the IFL title the Barnstormers held two seasons ago, only to be dethroned in the semi-finals of the playoffs last year by bitter rival Sioux Falls, 52-50.
The loss still stings, said Gloston, now entering his third season with the franchise.
With the Barnstormers holding a 41-31 lead in the third quarter and threatening to score once again, quarterback Daquan Neal suffered a game ending injury that swung the momentum in the other direction. Iowa kicked a field goal to take a 44-31 lead, but sputtered offensively the rest of the way, giving up 21 straight points.
“We ended up having a lot of injuries toward the end of last season, and even in that game, where we lost our quarterback,” Gloston said. “It’s all I’ve been thinking about since then. They’re (Sioux Falls) just a disciplined team. They have a good coach, who makes sure the players are in the right places at the right times, and have good, smart athletes. I love facing them. I love a challenge.”
Entering 2020, whether the Barnstormers can stay at or near the top of the IFL will depend on a number of factors, one of which is figuring out where they’ll land after some big winds of change blew through the organization in the off-season.
A new look
In September, the team accepted the resignation of Head Coach Dixie Wooten. The two-time IFL Coach of the Year recipient led the team to a 36-8 record in his three seasons at the helm, including three playoff appearances and the team’s first United Bowl Championship title in 2018.
“I was surprised,” Gloston said of Wooten’s departure. “He’s smart and knows the game. I learned a lot from him about technique, reading
coverages and getting myself in a good position to make plays. I’m happy to get a chance to learn under a new coach, but I’m kind of sad,
too. Regardless, I’m going to grind.”
Finding a new head coach took little time. Just 10 days after the announcement of Wooten’s departure, the Barnstormers named Ameer Ismail as coach.
After a brief stint in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ismail played linebacker in the indoor game for several teams including the Jacksonville Sharks Milwaukee Mustangs of the now-defunct Arena Football League (AFL), and Tri-Cities Fever, Bloomington Edge, and Chicago Slaughter of the Indoor Football League.
Ismail had met Barnstormers owner/VP/COO John Pettit earlier in his career, stayed in contact, and developed a good football and personal relationship with him, he said. So, when the opportunity arose, it was Ismail who got the call.
“It seemed to be a good fit,” Ismail said. “Just knowing that the ownership does things professionally, and there’s a familiarity and trust. That was a big draw.”
It’s early, but Gloston likes what he’s seen and heard thus far from his soon-to-be coach.
“I like his scheme,” he said. “This is going to be a fun learning experience, and it’s going to be about who can learn it and adapt the fastest.
Hard work beats talent every time. That’s what it’s going to take. Dedication, studying. You don’t just go out there and play.”
Gloston says he is looking forward to working with Ismail and his teammates, both new and old.
“I can’t wait to see some of my new teammates,” he said. “As long as we have the leaders on the team who can push the players, and those players fall in line and are into what the coach is saying, I think we can go all the way.”
Ismail’s won’t be the only new face on the Barnstormer roster in 2020. Gaping holes were left with the departure of quarterback Daquan Neal and wide receiver Ryan Balentine, the deadliest offensive 1-2 punch in the league last season.
Neal led the IFL in passing touchdowns and completed 225 of 317 passes for 2,642 yards and 59 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He also rushed for 649 yards and 24 touchdowns, second in the league, and was named as the First Team All-IFL QB.
Balentine was equally as dominant from the wideout position, leading the league in receptions (89), yards (1,084) and touchdowns (28). Balentine scored at least once in every regular season game.
After Wooten’s resignation and signing with the Tucson Sugar Skulls as coach and general manager, one of his first moves was to sign the elusive Neal, the Indoor Football League’s 2019 Most Valuable Player.
Neal wasn’t the only former Barnstormer to join the Sugar Skulls following the hiring of Wooten. Safety Jajuan Harley, a defensive captain for Iowa in 2019, will also be switching uniforms in 2020, as will defensive lineman B.J. Butler, a 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pounder who spent the last three years with the Barnstormers. Also on the Sugar Skulls roster are 2018 All-IFL linebacker Zach Allen, All-IFL defensive tackle Keith Jones Jr., and cornerback Dee Maggitt, each of whom played for Iowa in 2018.
Wide receiver Connor Hollenbeck, Iowa’s leading returning offensive performer from a year ago, said that players following coaches is nothing new to the league. In fact, it’s almost expected.
“It’s just part of it and what happens when you have one-year contracts,” he said. “We aren’t making millions of dollars. I was kind of shocked when Dixie left, but he’d already won a championship and built the program back up. He was just looking for opportunities to help get him to the next level. It wasn’t a huge surprise; it’s part of the turnover rate in this game.”
Defensive back Jourdan Wickliffe, who led the team with 8.4 tackles per game and four fumble recoveries in 2019, heads a small group of returning players to this year’s Barnstormers team.
Wickliffe (6-1, 205, Eastern Illinois University) returns to the team for a third season after appearing in eight games in 2019, racking up 67 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and one touchdown. Wickliffe was a three time, First Team All-Ohio Valley Conference selection in college, finishing his career with 14 interceptions. Following his collegiate career, Wickliffe was invited to participate in the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles rookie camp.
Offensively, Hollenbeck (6-6, 240, Edinboro University) returns to the Barnstormers for his second season after a solid campaign in 2019 in which he finished with 58 receptions for 627 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Hollenbeck has been working out from his home base in Tampa, Florida, in preparation for the upcoming season. If things work out as he hopes, his football career will continue on an upward trajectory to the Big Show. Step No. 1, however, is a breakout season in 2020 with the Barnstormers.
“To really get out of this league, you really have to dominate and be head and shoulders above everyone else at that position,” he said. “That’s my goal every year, to be No. 1. If I can be the best I can be, ultimately it will help the team be the best it can be. I’ve been staying active, eating healthy and working every day.”
Hollenbeck said he hasn’t met Ismail yet but is impressed by what he knows thus far through phone conversations and social media.
“He looks like he could still play,” Hollenbeck said of Ismail. “I’ve talked to him on the phone, and we’re friends on Facebook. His energy level looks high, and that’s a good thing for me. The coach can get the team pumped up.”
The big receiver said Ismail’s deep network of connections throughout all levels of football is equally as impressive.
“He’s big on getting guys to the next level,” he said. “He can get your film to people. That shows a lot about him. But he’s also big on the Barnstormers history and continuing that legacy. I’m looking forward to working with him.”
With the departure of last season’s quarterback, who will be throwing to Hollenbeck remains a bit of a question mark as well.
The Barnstormers made a move in the off-season to help rectify the situation by signing quarterback Caleb Holbrook to the 2020 roster following a trade with the Duke City Gladiators. Holbrook has played indoor football since 2016 when he joined the Bloomington Edge, where he spent two seasons before joining the Duke City Gladiators in 2018. During his time with the Gladiators, Holbrook appeared in 14 games where he rushed 78 times for 134 yards and 14 touchdowns and threw for 49 touchdowns. Collegiately, Holbrook began his career at West Texas A&M University before transferring to Oklahoma Panhandle State University. In his senior season, Holbrook passed for 2,797 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for 241 yards and two touchdowns.
Hollenbeck said that working to develop a chemistry with the team’s new quarterback — whomever that may be — is something he is looking forward to doing. The Xs and Os will come with repetition. At the end of the day, however, it boils down to one thing and one thing only: winning. Double-digit win totals in each of the last three seasons have set the bar high. Across the board, expectations have been raised, and now it’s a matter of living up to them, he said.
“I feel like everybody is already on the same page — the fans, the owners, the coaches. We all expect to win,” he said.
Also among the players who were re-signed in the off-season is defensive lineman T.J. Winslow. Winslow (6-3, 255, Harding) joined the Barnstormers in 2019 and appeared in the final four games of the season, collecting 20 total tackles and one sack.
Wide receiver Raheem Harvey (6’2, 205, Lewis-Clark Valley) also returns to the Barnstormers for his third season with the team. Last season, Harvey appeared in 11 games and finished with 11 receptions for 121 yards and three touchdowns.
The team also held an open tryout in December and from it signed running back Brycen Alleyne, defensive lineman Tymere DuBose, and defensive back Charles Reid, who will be joining the team’s training camp roster.
Alleyne (5’6, 165, Delaware State University) joins the Barnstormers for his rookie season in the Indoor Football League. Alleyne played four seasons at Delaware State University, appearing in 41 games where he rushed 424 times for 1,719 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also had 66 receptions for 491 yards and two touchdowns. Alleyne was a two-time All-Conference selection.
“Brycen is a guy I had watched film on prior to the tryout and looked very good,” Ismail said in a statement following the workouts. “I wanted to see him move live against other athletes at the tryout and see his size and hands. He didn’t disappoint. He had the fastest recorded 40 and looked really smooth running routes. I expect him to come in and compete for a starting spot.”
DuBose (6’5, 305, University of Kentucky) joins the Iowa Barnstormers for his rookie season in the IFL. DuBose played four years at the University of Kentucky where he appeared in 33 games collecting 24 total tackles and three tackles for loss.
“Tymere moved extremely well for a lineman his size,” said Ismail. “He has good length and hands and has had experience in an NFL camp with the Carolina Panthers.”
Reid (5’8, 180, Assumption College) played four years at Assumption College, playing in 47 games while collecting 127 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, nine interceptions, and 30 pass breakups.
“Charles had good footwork and leverage. He proved to be a disciplined and well-coached defensive back who can play man coverage as well,” said Ismail. “He will add depth to the defensive backs that can cover high-motion receivers consistently. I want to see him come to camp coachable, consistent and opportunistic.”
The three will join the Barnstormers’ 40-man training camp in February.
While snow and winter weather isn’t among Gloston’s favorite things in life, working with others off the field is, continuing an Iowa Barnstormers tradition of being a visible presence in the community as well as on the field.
Gloston has worked for the YMCA, the Department of Human Services and other community-based organizations, and revels in the opportunity to do even more.
“My biggest goal in life, no matter what happens, is to start my own mentoring program,” he said. “I know what it is to have a male role model, about rough times, whether it’s family, friends or teachers. I push myself to be that guy for them.”
Ismail echoes those sentiments.
“I come from leading with a lot of love and building a new culture,” he said. “We’re in this thing together. The way we do things matters. Everybody is excited to be a part of that winning culture and be a part of the community.” ♦
Things you should know
Indoor Football League, here are some of the basics of the game and a few key rules you’ll want to know:
2020 Iowa Barnstormers Schedule
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