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Thunder rolls in to fill city's arena football void

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Former Oregon Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas is in line to play for the new Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League.Training camp starts in 10 days. The season opener is little more than a month away — against San Jose on March 17 at the Moda Center.

Ready or not, here come the expansion Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League.

Matt Sauk says the Thunder will be ready, but isn’t making any Moses Malone-like (“Fo, Fo, Fo”) guarantees.

“I want fans to understand, it’s going to take a couple of games to understand what we have in our team and to begin the building (process),” says Sauk, Portland’s coach. “Just gives us a chance. Even if we lose to start out with, I guarantee you’ll have fun at our games.”

Sauk isn’t conceding defeat. He just believes strongly in the arena brand of indoor football that has been in existence since 1987 and will field 14 teams for the 2014 season.

“The game is constant excitement,” says Sauk, hired by owner Terry Emmert to guide Portland’s second crack at the AFL. “It’s so fast-paced ... to me, it’s the best type of game. It’s hard for me to watch the NFL. You have a four-minute break and there’s nothing. In arena football, there’s always something going on.”

Portland’s first entry in the AFL — the Forest Dragons, coached by Stan Brock from 1997-99 — drew crowds of 6,000 to 12,000 for home games before the franchise transferred to Oklahoma City.

The rules are the same now: The game is on a 50-yard field, with no punting, plenty of offense, and teams going at each other eight-on-eight at a breakneck pace.

Sauk, a former quarterback at Utah State, has plenty of experience with arena ball. He played for seven teams during an eight-year career in the AFL and AF2 (a secondary league no longer in existence), earning Hall of Fame honors in the latter category. He has coached in the AFL for five years, serving as offensive coordinator for the ArenaBowl champion Spokane Shock in 2010 and filling the O-coordinator role with Utah the past three years. Twice he was named the AFL’s assistant coach of the year.

Emmert — CEO of Clackamas-based Emmert International and also owner of the Portland Chinooks of the International Basketball League — bought the Milwaukee Mustangs franchise that was dormant in 2013 and has placed his faith in Sauk to steer the Thunder organization in the right direction.

“He’s an up-and-coming coaching star in this league,” Emmert says. “Matt will do a great job.”

Portland will compete in the six-team National Conference (west), with eight teams in American Conference (east). Besides Portland, Utah and Spokane, NC teams are Los Angeles, San Antonio and defending champion Arizona. Eight teams — four in each conference — qualify for the playoffs.

The Thunder season features an 18-game schedule, beginning with the home date versus San Jose that will be televised on the CBS Sports Network. The first two games are on Monday nights, but after that the slate calls for mostly Friday and Saturday night games. The regular season ends at home July 26 against Spokane.

Sauk, an Irvine, Calif., native who turns 38 next month, eyes his first head coaching job as a mixed blessing.

“The good news and the bad news is it’s a new team,” he says. “I get to put my stamp on it right away. The bad part is, we’re putting a bunch of people who have never played together on the field and hoping they do well.

“In arena football, once you have guys who have played together, it’s completely different. It’s a lot like the NBA. Look at (the Blazers). They were bad for a couple of years, but had some good young players. And all of a sudden, it clicked. I equate that to us. Early on, we’ll probably be a little rough. Once we get some familiarity, we’ll be much better.”

The Thunder got eight players from an AFL expansion draft. “Three or four of them will probably show up,” Sauk says somewhat cryptically.

Most of Portland’s roster will be comprised of free agents and AFL rookies. The Thunder will sign six or seven more players, Sauk says, and bring 35 players to training camp, which starts Feb. 23 at Tualatin Indoor Soccer. They’ll bring in an additional five “waiver” players to compete for roster spots. The roster will be trimmed to 28 players on March 3, then to the game limit of 24 on March 10.

Among the AFL rookies are quarterback candidates Darron Thomas and Nathan Enderle.

Thomas, is the former Oregon standout who hasn’t played football since leaving the Ducks after the 2011 season. Enderle, 26, a 6-4, 230-pound four-year starter at Idaho, hasn’t played since 2010, having knocked around NFL camps since then.

The other QB is 6-0, 210-pound Houston Lillard — older brother of the Blazers’ Damian Lillard — who will report off of waivers. The former Southeast Missouri State signal-caller, with experience in the minor Indoor Football League, will be on a day-to-day contract and will remain until he makes the team or is cut. The Thunder will carry two quarterbacks.

Thomas has been used extensively by the Thunder in preseason promotions, and Sauk all but admits the job is his to lose.

“There’s always a competition, but we really want Darron to do well, and it’s my job to get him there,” the coach says. “We want to do what we can to win, and we’ll play the quarterback who earns the job. But who wouldn’t want a local kid to do well?”

The Thunder will have at least two Portland prep alumni — nose guard Harold Love out of Grant High and Bethune-Cookman and defensive back Patrick Stoudamire from Centennial High and Western Illinois. He is the cousin of ex-Blazer Damon Stoudamire.

Among the AFL veterans Sauk expects to count upon are defensive lineman Antron Dillon and defensive backs Stoudamire, Eric Crocker and Dwight McLean. Among the rookies, Sauk is high on former Washington offensive linemen Stanley Daniels and 6-4, 340-pound Max Jean-Gilles (“the guy is a beast”) along with receivers James Kirkendoll (“runs about a 4.3 40”) and Douglas McNeil.

The kicker is another ex-Husky, Michael Braunstein, a kicking coach who lives in the Portland area.

The Thunder will have two intrasquad scrimmages — one on March 1 at Tualatin Indoor Soccer that is open to the public, the second a closed affair on March 9.

Then it will be on to the start of the club’s inaugural campaign on March 17.