BAFA National Leagues Preview | NFC1 South

With Doncaster Mustangs now realigned to the NFC1 North and the addition of Leicester Falcons and Coventry Jets, the old MFC1 truly is a Midlands Football Conference. So of course, it’s renamed to the NFC1 South.

NFC1 South - Rob Amor

2016 MFC1 winners Sandwell Steelers enter the new campaign aiming for nothing short of the Division 1 title. With talent across the roster and the coaching staff, first year Head Coach Ross Barrow – who got the role permanently after filling in for Jay Alexander towards the back end of 2016 – has the club bought in to the idea they can win the championship.

There’s been a fair bit of turnover in terms of playing roster since the last campaign, however. Dual-threat QB Jonny Glover has moved to Australia, replaced by the incoming Callum Davidson who is playing his debut campaign in Adult ‘ball having starred for Birmingham Lions Juniors and playing in Europe with Cottbus Crayfish and Hassleholm Hurricanes. At defensive back, the Steelers have lost starters Sam Jeater and Dotun Ademiju, both of whom moved away, as well as Greg Freeman to retirement.

However, they’ve seen an influx of experience on both sides of the ball. Former Lions Juniors James Jones-Cross (RB) and Josh Lawrence (WR) make the step up to the Adult league. Paul Zinkus – former University of Birmingham Lions – joins at safety and will hope to keep the defensive backs operating at a high level. Gareth Thomas switches allegiances from the Birmingham Bulls to join the Steelers’ back field too.

James Jones-Cross marked his Steelers debut with a touchdown. Image courtesy of Andy M Neale, aka Whizzyfingers. Check the full album out here.

The Lions Junior graduates have already made an impact in their short time with Sandwell. In a pre-season scrimmage against Staffordshire Surge, James Jones-Cross proved he is ready for the transition with a solid game including a kick-off return for a touchdown. Josh Lawrence will be one to watch in the conference. A truly special talent, he’s already playing like a 10-year veteran.

Defensive Coordinator Stuart Andrew – former Head Coach at Worcester Royals – will turn to experienced players such as Sam Rafferty on the defensive line in what could very well be a run heavy conference. Rob Jones at safety is a hard hitter capable of playing in the box or coverage.

Speaking of run heavy, the Birmingham Bulls will likely turn to the incredible talent of French running back Marc Bonazebi once again in 2017. The standout offensive star at the Bulls has broken club records galore in his short time with the club, passing 1,200 rush yards in back-to-back seasons.

Head Coach Mark Pagett enters his third season at the helm of the Bulls. There’s been a culture shift at the UK’s longest established club, with Pagett weeding out the negative attitudes of yesteryear. Unfortunately, this has come at a cost to the playing roster. None of the defensive unit from 3 years ago remain, and player turnover has seen a number of players leave in recent years including the Ademiju brothers to Sandwell, standout OL Tom Levick and OL David Pemberton move to Tamworth.

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Electric RB Marc Bonazebi in action for the Bulls. Image courtesy of Andy M Neale, aka Whizzyfingers.

However, veteran OL Matthew Sheldon returns to the club for another year, and should bolster the unit protecting second year quarterback Alex Back. Back showed considerable potential in 2016, and it will be interesting to see his progress in the off-season.

Recent news coming out of the camp is that Defensive Coordinator Alan Steel resigned from his position at the weekend (rumoured to have taken up an offer to coach the Defensive Line at Tamworth Phoenix).  It could be another year of transition for a Bulls side that only managed to register four wins last season.

Other Defensive Coordinator news coming out of the NFC1 South is the appointment of #TeamDC member Grant Dean Lawless as the new DC at Nottingham Caesars. Long serving Caesars Head Coach Barry Boseley has stepped down from his defensive play calling duties and is handing the reigns to Lawless.

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We haven’t heard much else coming out from the Caesars camp, but we do know they’re an exciting side with potential to upset the apple cart in the conference. LT David George anchors an offensive line that is tasked with protecting long-time start Dan Johnson and dual-threat Aljosa Sarcevic. Sarcevic transferred from Aberdeen Roughnecks prior to 2016, playing WR but also taking snaps under centre. Standout WR Deivydas Merkelis returns for another season of terrorising defensive backs, and is joined by Australian speedster Thomas Green.

Pick-6 extraordinaire Robert Hardwick in action. Image taken from facebook.com

Under new DC Lawless, hard-hitting trash talking linebacker Ashley Matthews is again joined by Andrew Wilkins (OLB) in the front seven with ‘Mister Pick 6’, orchestrator of the most incredible ending to a BAFA National Leagues game this writer has ever seen, Rob Hardwick back once again.

Turning our attention to the newbies in the conference, the Coventry Jets were disappointed –obviously – with their performance last season, dropping out of the Premier North. Losing a number of players to injury and Tamworth/Leicester meant by the second game our squad had been reduced to around 18-22 players. Particular lows were cancelling the East Kilbride Pirates game as half the line was on holiday and we had only 13 players available, and failing to complete the Tamworth Phoenix game due to 2 lineman getting injured.

Entering the 2017 campaign, the Jets have a roster of over 50 players thanks to strong recruitment from local Universities and returning players who missed 2016 with long-term injuries.

Chris Hobbs, Mike Billinghurst, Sam Hyde & Sean Hanlon are notable starters who have returned this season, all played in the 2014 team that made the playoffs.

Aiming for an immediate return to the Premier, Sean Martin has stayed on for his second year as Head Coach. Bruce Leatherman stepping up from Defensive Coordinator into the role of Chairman has seen the organisational side improve massively, with Britball veteran Colin Branagh taking over as Defensive Coordinator. Branagh has previously been HC/positional coach at a number of clubs, and was most recently with Swindon Storm.

Colin Branagh in at DC for the Jets. Image courtesy of facebook.com/CoventryJets

Britbowl winning QB Dom Olney – formerly of Valencia Firebats, Seinajoki Crocodiles and Helsinki Wolverines – has been developing the offensive playbook with Coach Martin, and will hope to re-establish his partnership with leading receiver Ben Fisher.

Defensive and offensive lines have former Britbowl winners Andrew “Geordie” Smith and Rich Carey at the helm, and will lean on experienced players Conor Durham and Matt Ball at defensive end, with Conor having played both sides of the line at University with Warwick Wolves.

Promoted Leicester Falcons fill the final spot in the conference. The Falcons tore up Division Two en route to a perfect season in 2016. However, Head Coach Lester Hopewell stepped down in the offseason, being replaced by former Special Teams Coordinator Noel Cassar. Defensive Coordinator Wayne Gumbs returns after leading the defensive unit to a National Leagues best 2.1 points per game against (London Warriors averaged 2.9).

Back-to-back titles for the Falcons? Image courtesy of facebook.com/LeicesterFalcons

Derby Braves quarterback Troy Lee leads the offense, and is already hitting fine form having led the side to 49-21 victory over Oxford Saints – another promoted side – in pre-season. A number of #TeamDC writers expect the Falcons to compete for back-to-back promotions this season, and at this time, it would be hard to argue against them.

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Rob Amor

Rob somehow fits Britball around a hectic life of work, newborns, and rare, blissful, moments of quiet in which to nap. Rob stepped down from the Birmingham Bulls committee at the end of 2016 and walked away after 10 years at the club. He leads DC’s Adult league coverage and dabbles in a bit of BUCS. Follow him on Twitter – @RobAmorDC