The Orlando Apollos have established themselves as the team to beat in the inaugural year of the Alliance of American Football.
The Apollos (5-0) are the only undefeated team in the league with a two-game win cushion over every other team in either conference.
Tim Ruskell, the team’s general manager, said geography and a great coaching staff have a lot to do with his team’s success.
Each team in the league is assigned a particular geographic area where they can sign players who have no contracts with other leagues. In some instances, the players are coming off injuries in college and never had a chance to try out for a NFL team. They are hoping to get enough playing time to get an invitation to a NFL training camp next summer.
In some instances, the players have NFL experience and are hoping to play well enough for a chance to play at the highest level again.
“I wouldn’t trade our Florida recruiting ground,” he said.
That’s not to say the team didn’t sign other players from outside the region through an unallocated player draft and free agency. The team has 13 players from outside Florida.
Ruskell said the new league, in its inaugural season, is in uncharted territory and he doesn’t know how many players on his team could be on a NFL squad next year but he estimates as many an one-third of his players could move on to the next level.
Ruskell, who has been a general manager in the NFL, said his Apollos team is playing with a lot of confidence. Practices have been loose, with lots of clapping, laughing and encouragement among players.
He said the team is very focused, even with the distraction of having to practice for more than half the season at Camden County High School in Kingsland — more than 180 miles from Orlando.
The players live in a Jacksonville hotel and take busses to Kingsland for daily practices, walk throughs and weight training, which Ruskell said could be one of the keys to the team’s success. Players have developed a close bond because they are spending so much time with their teammates on and off the field, he said.
“They’re having fun out there,” he said. “There’s no complacency. I have to credit Coach Spurrier and his coaching staff.”
Ruskell said the practice facility at Camden High is perfect for the team to accomplish everything it needs in practice.
“There are no distractions,” he said. “You can get your work done.”
The team leads the league in most offensive categories and ranks second in overall defense.
Ruskell said quarterback Garrett Gilbert is one of the players who exceeded expectations when they signed him in the quarterback draft. Gilbert, who leads the league in passing and has not thrown an interception this season, played on the practice squads and as a backup on several NFL teams but never saw much playing time.
“He exceeded expectations because we hadn’t seen him play in a few years,” he said. “You couldn’t anticipate what he’s done so far.”
The team returns home for the first time in three weeks to face the Arizona Hotshots at 8 p.m. Saturday night. The game will be nationally televised on the NFL Channel.
Ruskell said the league’s top two offenses will face each other in a game that will likely be determined by defense.
“Their quarterback can throw and run,” he said. “They’re never out of a play.”