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Locos prepare to begin title defense

The Las Vegas Locomotives will begin their second training camp with a new look, the same philosophy and a big target on their backs.

The now-silver, red and black-clad Locos have the majority of the 2009 coaching staff back for Year 2, as well as many players who contributed to the first-ever United Football League championship back in November – which means the Locos know they have to bring their “A-game” every game this fall.

“I never assume anything, and I’ll address that,” said Locos head coach/general manager Jim Fassel. “What we accomplished last year was awesome. That was last year, and that’s not going to mean anything this year. Now, we’re back in it. We have to go out and work hard. Everybody wants to beat last year’s champion.”

With seven starters on offense and six starters on defense, as well as a key nucleus of backups and special-teamers, back in the fold, along with some intriguing offseason additions, the Locos plan on being not that easy to beat.

Offense

After backing up J.P. Losman last season, veteran quarterback Tim Rattay takes the reigns of the Vegas offense. In limited duty in 2009, Rattay was 10-for-23 for 101 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season and 0-for-2 in the title game.

“Tim’s the incumbent, and we felt good about what he did in the offseason,” Fassel said. “I have a lot of confidence in him.”

Rookie college record-setter Chase Clement also is available at quarterback, as is ex-Buffalo Bull Drew Willy. Last year’s No. 3 pivot, Russ Michna, was injured during the recent Arena Football League season and won’t be ready for camp.

Returning to lead the running back corps is veteran Marcel Shipp, who made his return to professional football last fall by finishing second on the team with 257 yards on a team-high 72 carries (3.6-yard average) and adding three rushing touchdowns. Shipp was 9-34-0 in the championship game.

“Marcel is the veteran statesman of that group,” said Fassel, who added that the entire running back corps is really talented. “Marcel’s that dependable veteran guy. He sets the tone and the work ethic.”

The returnees at wide receiver are Andrae Thurman (15 catches, 218 yards, one touchdown), Samie Parker (14-174-3) and Tab Perry (11-195-1). Parker, who is coming off a stint with the AFL’s Rush this summer, grabbed five passes in last year’s title game.

“Those guys played real well for us last year,” said Fassel, who also said he believes his receiving group has a good combination of speed, size and guys who can play both inside and outside.

Adam Bergen not only was the Locos’ top tight end last year with 16 catches in the regular season and a game-high seven in the championship game, but he led all UFL tight ends in receptions, as well. Fassel didn’t disagree with an assessment that Bergen is the best tight end in the league.

“Now, he’s shown what he can do,” Fassel said.

Las Vegas returns two starters along its offensive line – left guard Frank Davis and center Jesse Boone – and Fassel said the depth has improved there as well.

Defense

Three Locos starters are back along the defensive line – ends Adrian Awasom (four tackles, one for loss, a forced fumble, a pass breakup, two sacks and two quarterback hurries in the title game) and Eric Henderson, who had a league-lead-tying three sacks last year, and tackle Ross Kolodziej.

“They (Awasom and Henderson) both really did a good job for us a year ago, and they provide some experience there,” said Vegas defensive coordinator/special teams coordinator Larry Mac Duff. “Both those guys are positives for our defense coming back.”

Mac Duff also said Kolodziej was a solid guy and good leader for the team, and that the other defensive tackle spot could end up as a rotation among a couple players.

Brandon Moore (28 tackles, one sack last season) is the lone returning starter at linebacker on the outside, but ’09 backups Ezra Butler, Ronnie Palmer, Marcus Riley and Brian Toal all will attempt to earn starting spots in camp. Also in the mix is National Football League vet and Vegas native Ed Hartwell.

“I feel really good about that group,” Mac Duff said. “We add Eddie Hartwell, who’s an experienced starter in the NFL. He came in at mini-camp and looked like he’s ready to go. We have a good mixture of experience, and some (younger) guys who have improved.”

In the secondary, two starters come back in right cornerback Wale Dada (two interceptions, 30 tackles) and free safety Nick Turnbull (two interceptions, 24 tackles). Returning Locos who will look to seal up starting jobs are corners Isaiah Trufant and Trey Young and safeties Marcus Hamilton, Jamal Lewis and Brandon Sumrall.

Mac Duff said Dada improved as 2009 went on, and that Trufant made a lot of plays as the nickel back, including the interception in overtime that led to the game-wining field goal in the title game. Mac Duff also stated that Turnbull did a good job at free safety, and that last year’s backups will get reps with the first group at strong safety and left corner.

Special teams

Danny Baugher, who led the UFL in punting last year with a 43.5-yard gross average and a 38.4-yard net average, returns. Rookie Brooks Rossman is the lone kicker in camp, while Rigo Morales returns at long snapper. Mac Duff said Rossman hits a “true ball,” has explosion, is accurate and is consistent with his kickoffs.

Perry is the top returning kickoff returner from last fall (7-156-0), and Parker is the top punt returner back in camp (10-64-0). Two more intriguing returnee possibilities are six-year Canadian Football League veteran Jason Armstead and ex-Florida State Seminole Michael Ray Garvin.

The Locos were the only team in the UFL last year to block a punt, and they blocked three of them. Vegas also was first in the UFL in 2009 in punting, punt returns, and kickoff return defense.

“Rigo Morales had a great season snapping, Danny Baugher punted well, so we just need to replace the kicker. I think Rossman will do a good job,” said Fassel, who added that one of the keys to the kicking game was having backup linebackers and defensive backs contribute.

The bottom line

Beyond establishing his 52-man regular-season roster, Fassel wants to re-establish his team’s squad-wide bond.

“Because we don’t have an offseason program, we haven’t been together. It’s huge that we bond as a team, they have a special feeling for each other and they want to win together,” he said. “These guys learned that we were a team. You come in now, and those have to be your comrades.”

Fassel said another training-camp goal is to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the team, both by position and individually.

One of last year’s keys for the Locos was roster stability, as the team made the fewest roster moves in the league in 2009. Fassel said the team is better depth-wise this year, and that there is a better nucleus at each position as a starting point.

“We’re really looking forward to it,” Fassel said of training camp. “It’s always exciting when you get the guys you’ve had back, and the new guys, you’re just real anxious to see them on the field and get a real football environment. Everything we do every day contributes to our success. We all got into coaching to develop players on the field and develop a team. Now, the season is on us, and it’s exciting.”

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