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Sharks gain momentum with preseason win over Tampa Bay

WR Mardy Gilyard had some success on kickoff returns.
WR Mardy Gilyard had some success on kickoff returns.
Erik Watkins

There was a lot of good, a fair amount of bad, and a little ugly during Jacksonville’s 42-35 preseason win over the Tampa Bay Storm at Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday night.

With Aaron Garcia not reporting to camp, the battle for the starting quarterback job was between R.J. Archer and Kyle Rowley. Archer started the first half, and the Sharks took time to get their legs underneath of them on both sides of the ball. Archer had to contend with shaky protection on the first drive, but still led Jacksonville down the field. However, between high throws and receivers working out their routes, they couldn’t cash it in. The missed opportunity cost them, as the Storm beat them on a long route for a 7-0 lead after eight minutes.

Archer had his next pass tipped and intercepted, which gave a much leaner defensive line an opportunity to get pressure. They were leaner, but they weren’t much meaner early on. Jacksonville’s secondary found their man, but not the ball, as Tampa Bay led 14-0 after a nearly blocked extra point.

Missed opportunities were the theme of the first quarter, as Archer missed a wide open tight end. However, Shamar Graves finally got Jacksonville on the board thanks to a TD run. After rookie DB Kieron Jones intercepted another tipped pass, Jacksonville got their offensive form.

FB R.J. Bibbs showed why he’s back with the team after a bruising run, setting up another rookie, Andrew Bodenheimer, for an 11-yard score to cut the lead to 14-13 six minutes into the second quarter.

The defense followed suit, getting pressure on Storm QB Randy Hippeard, but they couldn’t get off the field on fourth down. Despite a Kieron James pass breakup, Tampa Bay scored again with less than a minute left in the half. Jacksonville had some issues managing the clock, but WR Jeremy Kelley set up Willie Garner for a scoring catch to redeem an earlier miss, putting the Sharks down 21-20 at the half.

Jacksonville picked up where they left off in the second half, sacking backup Storm QB Stephen Garcia (the referees used an “in the grass” style of call throughout the game) for a safety and a 22-21 lead. Kyle Rowley didn’t fare better, throwing an interception that led to a Tampa Bay score. The Sharks answered quickly with a Shamar Graves power run and a Mardy Gilyard 25-yard catch to tie the game at 28 after Fabrizio Scaccia missed the extra point.

After getting another sack, the Sharks saw Garcia’s scrambling ability as he rolled and threw a touchdown pass to give the Storm a 35-28 lead late in the third quarter. Jacksonville needed a little help tying the game, as there was miscommunication and timing issues with Rowley under center. Rowley did redeem himself by finding Shamar Graves in the end zone to tie the game. Sharks DL Corey Hasting recovered a fumbled snap, FB Jared McGriff-Culver ran around the left end and into the end zone for a 42-35 lead.

The Sharks sealed the victory thanks to their fourth sack of the day and a goal line stand.

Both quarterbacks threw two touchdowns and an interception in their half of football. R.J. Archer completed 12 of his 22 passes for 106 yards, while Kyle Rowley went 5-of-12 for 66 yards in the process.

The wide receiver position is the biggest battle heading into the end of camp. WR Willie Carter led the Sharks with five catches for 44 yards and a score, while Mardy Gilyard totaled a game-high 63 yards on his four receptions. Andrew Bodenheimer added 34 yards on four receptions, while Shamar Graves totaled three catches for 33 yards and Jeremy Kelley pitched in with two catches for five yards.

On defense, LB Xavier Brewer led all players with 6.5 tackles, while Reggie Paramoure racked up two sacks and Brodrick Brown totaled six pass breakups. In addition to his interception, Kieron Jones totaled 3.5 tackles and four pass breakups.

For the Storm, Randy Hippeard went 8-of-21 for 110 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, while Stephen Garcia was 7-of-15 for 78 yards and a touchdown. Andrew Helmick led Tampa Bay with three receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown, while Rod Issac and James Harrell led the Storm with 4.5 tackles apiece.

Shamar Graves, who saw time late last season, said that it was a learning experience. “I’m learning a lot and keeping an open mind.” He had a strong two-way performance, and noted that he’s open to whatever head coach Les Moss has planned for him should he make the roster. “My motor and hard work will [help me make the team.] I was more anxious than nervous.”

Andrew Bodenheimer relished his first experience of indoor football. “It was my first time with the walls and the crowd, all eyes are on you. It’s another level of excitement.” While he noted needing to work on routes and releases, he praised the offensive line and his fellow receivers, as well as both quarterbacks for giving tips on improving his play. Kyle Rowley credited him for studying Jeron Harvey’s red zone routes for his performance.

Both quarterbacks also gave credit to the receivers, especially Gilyard and Bodenheimer. For R.J. Archer, it was more about recovering from last year’s season-ending injury. “The ankle feels fine. Physically I feel good. The first series was tough, but we settled down.” For Rowley, it was about just getting back into the game. “It felt great, it’s why I’m in love with the game. It’s nice to get the rookies out [on the field].”

Rowley cited the third-quarter issues to zone looks on defense, but gave credit to both the Sharks defense and each receiver for his individual efforts and style of play in the win.

Head coach Les Moss also fielded postgame questions from both the media and the fans. He noted that there were a lot of positives to take from the game, his happiness going into the last few days of practice, and his desire to play a strict man defense throughout the game. He also expressed a desire to potentially host the ArenaBowl as the league has reverted to a highest-seed remaining format. As far as Aaron Garcia not reporting, “I’m not here to talk about players who aren’t here.”

Next up for Jacksonville is the season opener against the Orlando Predators at CFE Arena on the campus of the University of Central Florida. The Sharks will have their home opener on March 29 against the San Antonio Talons after a Week 2 bye.

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