The Jacksonville Sharks' quest for a fourth South Division title in as many seasons officially begins on Saturday, March 23, as the team heads southwest for a divisional match-up against the Tampa Bay Storm. Kickoff from the Tampa Bay Times Forum is set for 7:30 p.m. EST.
Led by quarterback Bernard Morris, the Sharks enter the 2013 season with the core of the team's division-winning roster largely intact. In all, 10 players who played with the Sharks in 2012 broke camp with the team for Week 1.??
On offense, Morris will throw to a couple of familiar targets, including longtime Shark in Jeron Harvey, a Jacksonville native who is the franchise's all-time leader with 218 career receptions. Harvey is one of three Shark players who have been with the team in every one of Jacksonville's seasons as a franchise, joining offensive lineman Isaac Morales and defensive back Bill Alford in that distinction.
Along with Harvey, the Shark offense will look to the versatile Terrance Smith, who excelled in several dimensions in 2012. Beginning the season at wide receiver, Smith established a new franchise record for all-purpose yards in a single season, then switched to defense as an injury replacement and recorded an interception in each of Jacksonville's five games.
The 2013 season also sees the return of playmaker Jeff Hughley, who is the reigning AFL Ironman of the Year after an outstanding season with the Philadelphia Soul in 2012. A key piece of the Sharks' championship run in 2011, Hughley is set to make an impact both on offense and on special teams. In addition, Jacksonville added height to its receiving corps within the last week, trading for the six-foot-seven Markee White, a fourth-year veteran who captured an ArenaBowl ring with Spokane in 2010 and with Arizona last season.
On the other side of the ball, the Shark defense is packed with an impressive collection of AFL resumes. Led by defensive back Micheaux Robinson, who earned a First-Team All-Arena nod in 2011 and a Second-Team selection in 2010, a total of four players on the Jacksonville defense have received All-Arena accolades. That group includes returning Mac linebacker Aaron Robbins (First Team, 2012) and veteran newcomers in defensive back Tracy Belton (Second Team, 2012) and defensive lineman Dusty Bear (Second Team, 2011).
Belton and Bear represent a key focus of the Sharks' offseason plan - veteran additions. After Jacksonville began the 2011 season with 13 rookies on its opening-week roster, head coach Les Moss took a different tack this time around. The Sharks open 2013 with just two players with rookie eligibility, and one of those - nose guard Rashaad Duncan - was with the team for all of 2012 after suffering a season-ending injury in training camp.
The Sharks open this season with a divisional road test, facing a Tampa Bay Storm team looking to recapture its former glory. As a proud franchise that is the only team in AFL history with five ArenaBowl titles, the Storm are on a mission to get back to the postseason after missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
In a contrast to the Jacksonville lineup, Tampa Bay enters this year with a young squad that features 10 rookies. The Storm did make a big splash late in the off-season, adding 2004 AFL Rookie of the Year Adrian McPherson, a former Florida State quarterback who has spent each of the last five seasons in the Canadian Football League.
Saturday's game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and will air live on WJXT Channel 4 and AM 600 WBOB. The game will also be simulcast live online via the "AFL Live" video player.