The Tucson Sugar Skulls, whose season was canceled last year because of COVID-19 after a successful inaugural season in 2019, play their first home game of the Dixie Wooten era on Saturday at the Tucson Convention Center.
Fittingly, Tucson’s first game at TCC in two seasons (last season was canceled because of COVID-19) is against Wooten’s former team, the Iowa Barnstormers (2-1). Kickoff is at 6:05 p.m.
In the time between the Sugar Skulls (1-1) turned the ball over on downs with 16 seconds left at the Blizzard 23-yard line that sealed the season-opening 42-36 loss at Green Bay, to the opening snap of Tucson’s 55-35 road-victory against Duke City last week, the Sugar Skulls have looked like a different team.
The Blizzard already played four games when then the Sugar Skulls played their first game of the season at Green Bay. Tucson was up 35-6 at halftime a week later against Duke City in an eventual 20-point win that is not indicative of much the Sugar Skulls dominated.
Actual game experience matters especially when so many Sugar Skulls players had not adjusted to the IFL game-speed and rules.
Defensive back Matt Elam, a former first-team All-American at Florida and a first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens, agreed a significant adjustment takes place from the first game to the next. He led the Sugar Skulls with seven tackles against Duke City.
“I’m not a man of excuses, but I feel like the first game for a majority of our team – it was our first year playing in the IFL, and the game’s a little faster, and things are a little quicker, so it was an adjustment for most guys,” Elam said. “I feel like the way coach (Wooten) prepares during the week, he prepared us well going into week two, and I feel like the jump from week one to week two is always the best jump. I’m looking forward to week three and we should be better.
“Preparation and knowing how to prepare has what’s made us better.”
Wooten agrees with Elam’s assessment of the Sugar Skulls’ early season turn-around.
“Most of these guys had never played the indoor game before, so going to Green Bay they didn’t understand the speed of the game, they didn’t understand a lot of the rules and things like that, so getting the game on film and breaking it down to the guys and making them understand the mistakes that we made, that’s where our big jump came from in week two,” said Wooten.
Former Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft earned IFL Offensive Player of the Week honors for his six-touchdown performance through the air and on the ground at Duke City.
The Sugar Skulls defense has also made strides of improvement since its loss at Green Bay by limiting penalties, making the correct reads, and pressuring Duke City’s Nate Davis to throw three interceptions to Mike Minter, Delano Boyd, and and former Utah Utes standout Cory Butler-Byrd.
The experience and professionalism that Elam brings to the Tucson defense as a former All-American in college, to his stints in the NFL, CFL, and XFL seem to be paying big dividends for the Sugar Skulls.
“For one thing man, just playing football – at the end of the day, man – it’s a blessing,” Elam said. “No matter what league it’s in and what level it’s on, it’s a blessing. Just being a student of the game, that’s what I had to learn transitioning from college, to the NFL, to the professional league.
“Just trying to make everyone around you better. Showing how to practice, showing them how to be pros, showing them how to take care of their body. It’s just the small things that make you last long.”
Wooten earned two IFL Coach of the Year awards, won the 2018 United Bowl championship and finished the 2019 regular season with a 12-2 record with Iowa before he joined the Sugar Skulls as head coach and general manager. He is looking forward to taking on his former team.
“It’s going to be a great thing going against your old team, it’s good to see those guys doing great over there and you always want to beat that team that you was with,” said Wooten. “I still got a few players over there, I got a few coaches over there, and a relationship with some of the media guys over there as well, so it’s a great feeling for them to come down to Tucson.”
Tucson’s home opener will be played in front of a crowd of potential 100 percent capacity (the TCC seats 9,275).
“It’s gonna be exciting, our guys get to be in all black watching our fans cheer for us,” Wooten said. “ Being on the road twice, now we understand how it’s gonna be at home. Getting out of our bed, going to the stadium on game day, looking at social media, watching our fans cheer us on, then we walk in the arena and they’re cheering us on in there as well. So it’s gonna be a great feeling when we get in there.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. He is currently attending Pima Community College where he writes for the Aztec Press. Next semester he will be attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he will work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.