American Football League of China underway – Team preview Part 2

With the American Football League of China just underway,  Life in the Huddle presents the second installment of its preview of the 2017 American Football League of China season. Here is a look at the teams in the AFLC South and East Divisions.

AFLC SOUTH

Foshan Tigers, 2016 record: 3-3, eliminated in semifinals

Tigers receiver Al Qian (#15)

The Tigers are a hot pick to be the first non-Shanghai team to win an AFLC title since 2013, with plenty of talent to go around at the skill positions. Hyman Chen (#3) and Fisher Wu (#1) may split time at quarterback, while running back Liang Jianbang (#30), a 2nd round draft pick of the CAFL’s Wuhan Gators, is a threat to score on every play with his top-end speed. Jiang Haifu (#2) and Al Qian (#15) are two small but speedy wide receivers who will be looking to build off clutch performances in last year’s playoffs. Lineman David Li (#74) is one of the best in the league, and has NFL-size at 6’5” 286 pounds. The Tigers have only seemed to become stronger since their heartbreaking 24-23 loss in last year’s semifinals to the eventual champions, the Shanghai Titans, and should be the favorites to win the AFLC South Division this season.

Hong Kong Warhawks, 2016 record: 3-2, eliminated in quarterfinals

The Warhawks celebrating a touchdown against the Taipei Predators earlier this preseason

The Warhawks have established themselves as Hong Kong’s topteam, but suffered a demoralizing 28-14 loss in the league quarterfinals last year to the Tigers. Matt Liao (#15) returns for his second full season at quarterback, and will definitely benefit from having shifty running back Yip Ka Chun (#9) in the backfield for a full season. Yip, as well as lineman Billy Lai (#63) and defensive back Lui Sze Ting (#10) were not available for much of last season due to playing in the CAFL, but will be fully ready for the 2017 season. Tight end/defensive end Gary Lee (#82) and wide receiver Jason Yeung (#80) will also be major contributors. The Warhawks won the South China Bowl, a preseason tournament involving teams from Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and thus figure to have good momentum heading into the regular season.

Guangzhou Apaches, 2016 record: 2-3, eliminated in quarterfinals


In the 2016 AFLC playoffs, the Apaches had a golden opportunity to advance to the AFLC’s final four, with a home game in the quarterfinals against the Chengdu Pandamen, but could not deliver a victory, falling 28-18. There is no doubt that the Apaches have vastly improved over previous seasons, but advancing deep into the playoffs may still be a tall order, with how competitive the AFLC South Division has become. Dan Xie (#81) is a tall wide receiver with great hands, and may be their biggest threat on offense and special teams, as he serves as the team’s kicker and punter. Other key players for the Apaches include Tory Lin (#87), who can play both wide receiver and cornerback, and defensive end Lin Suichao (#6), who may be their best lineman on either side of the ball.

Hong Kong Combat Orcas, 2016 record: 1-3, missed playoffs

Quarterback Jonathan Wong carries the ball for the Combat Orcas.

The Orcas have shown steady improvement over the past year, the biggest example being a 10-0 upset victory over the Warhawks, the South Division champions, in last year’s regular season finale. Wide receiver Harry Cheng (#81) is the top threat on offense, and was selected in the 1st round of this year’s CAFL Draft by the Qingdao Clippers. Cheng will catch passes from two quarterbacks, Jonathan Wong (#14) and Cheung Cheuk Heng (#7). Veteran linebacker Ken Wong (#99) returns to anchor the defense, which may be the catalyst behind the Orcas’ improvement. With the South being such a toss-up this season, don’t be surprised if Hong Kong’s third football team challenges for the division’s final playoff spot.

Hong Kong Cobras, 2016 record: 2-2, missed playoffs

Cobras running back Hysan Ng (#42)

For a few years, the Cobras were Hong Kong’s best team, but recent losses to the Warhawks and Combat Orcas have shifted the balance of power in the city. Quarterback/linebacker Ben Wong (#5) may be the Cobras’ best all-around player, as he can run, pass, and play solid defense. Running back Hysan Ng (#42) is a newcomer with explosive speed, and offensive lineman Al Misialek (#68) is new to the team, but has plenty of football experience overseas. He will be the leader of what the Cobras hope to be an improved offensive line. Linebackers Dandy Dealino (#35), Andre Clarke (#25), and Michael Coles will lead a defensive unit that has historically been the Cobras’ biggest strength. It has been a disappointing preseason so far for the Cobras, but the potential to turn it around for the regular season is there, as the team certainly doesn’t lack for experience.

AFLC EAST

Shanghai Titans, 2016 record: 6-1, won AFLC championship

Titans wide receiver Eason Chen

The defending champion Titans have a very good shot at being the AFLC’s first repeat champions. After a 28-6 dismantling of the Shanghai Nighthawks in last season’s title game, the Titans have not lost too many key pieces. Datong Wang, one of two head coaches for the team in 2016, has become the AFLC’s new commissioner, leaving Kyle Moran as the team’s true head coach. Matt Smith (#3) has moved from wide receiver to quarterback, where he has been showcasing a strong and accurate arm throughout the preseason, in addition to the speed which helped him earn AFLC Wide Receiver of the Year honors in 2016. Eason Chen (#47) and Cam Shubert (#4), both members of the CAFL’s Wuhan Gators, are two of the AFLC’s best receivers, and present a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Defensive back Huang Zhiqian (#32) and tight end/fullback Yang Shunjun (#86) are two players newer to the team that will both be very important to the team’s success, having both been drafted in this year’s CAFL Draft. Nothing is ever a sure thing in the AFLC East, but the Titans have the offensive firepower necessary to outgun every team in every game they play, and become two-time AFLC champions.

Shanghai Warriors, 2016 record: 4-1, eliminated in quarterfinals

Warriors defensive back Leo Liu

Last season’s Warriors were a perfect 4-0 in the regular season, but were knocked out in a bitter quarterfinal loss to their longtime rivals, the Nighthawks. Not making it to the AFLC Championship Game would be considered a failure for any of the Shanghai Big Three, but the Warriors have reloaded, producing decisive preseason victories over the Titans and Nighthawks. Their talented receivers corps is mostly back from last season, and running back Andrew Crook (#7) should once again be a workhorse from the backfield behind an improved offensive line. Defensively, lineman John Li (#74) is a strong, agile force in the interior, and defensive back Leo Liu’s (#3) impressive preseason performances have solidified him as a key piece to the secondary. The Warriors are in the title hunt year-in and year-out, and 2017 figures to be no different for them, as their offensive, defensive, and special teams units are well-coached and well-balanced.

Shanghai Nighthawks, 2016 record: 4-3, lost in AFLC Championship Game

Nighthawks running back Cook Fan (#6)

The Nighthawks simply ran out of steam in last year’s title game, and that has seemed to carry over into this year’s preseason, as losses to the Warriors and Titans show that their work is cut out for them in 2017. Yet every year, the Nighthawks always find a way to turn it up in the postseason, having reached the last three AFLC Championship Games. They are led by veteran running backs Zhang Tianshou (#44) and Cook Fan (#6) on offense, and have been trying to deviate from their usual run-heavy offense by passing more often with quarterback Carsten Chai (#12). Linebacker Aaron Gu (#36) is one of the best all-around players in the league, as he can also play wide receiver, but he plays primarily on defense. With three playoff spots in the East this year, it seems the Nighthawks may still be able to reach the postseason, but with the rest of the league becoming stronger and stronger each year, reaching a fourth straight title game will be tougher than ever.

CUAFL, newly joined for 2017


The CUAFL team will be comprised of players from multiple different member schools of the China University American Football League in the Shanghai area. Although the team itself is new, and may be playing against a higher level of competition than its players have played against before, the team will not lack experienced players. Being a football league itself, its players have often played against each other, and have significant game experience. Tight end Cai Huan (#87) of Jiaotong University might be the best at his position in the CUAFL, as he catches well and is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Zhang Hua (#59) of Jiaotong University’s intelligence and tackling ability make him one of the best middle linebackers in the college league. Offensive tackle Cao Yang (#50) is the captain of the East China University of Science and Technology Terminators, and he excels in his knowledge of the game and pass protection ability. If the CUAFL team can come together and mesh well, they could perform surprisingly well against the Shanghai Big Three, and perform well in the East division overall.

Hefei Crocodiles, 2016 record: 1-3, missed playoffs


After winning their first AFLC game in the 2016 season opener, the Crocodiles went on to lose their next three to finish the regular season 1-3. Quarterback Ma Haiyang (#17) and speedy running back Lu Qing (#24) will be two key players on offense for Hefei, while Zhang Ruyi (#75) will be an important player on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Crocodiles will kick off the season with a trip to Hangzhou to face the newly established Hangzhou Smilodons.

Hangzhou Smilodons, newly joined for 2017

The Hangzhou Smilodons at practice

As a team that has just been formed in 2017, the Hangzhou Smilodons will face a significant challenge in the AFLC East. The Smilodons do show promise however, as they possess a few talented players that will help them stay competitive this season. Running back Ren Songjiang (#23) and wide receivers Li Yanlong (#88) and Han Hailiang (#85) all had superb performances in a preseason game against the Shanghai Titans. Shao Lifeng (#55) and Su Jingyu (#66) will be players to watch for on the offensive and defensive lines. Three of Hangzhou’s four games are against non-Shanghai teams, giving them a great opportunity to pick up a few wins and gain valuable game experience.

 

Danny Zhang
Danny Zhang is a Chinese-American college student who grew up playing American football in the Boston area. He has a keen interest in the development of the sport in China, where he has recently studied, worked, and experienced football’s rapid growth firsthand.
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