European League of Football Preview 2022: Southern Conference

This weekend the European League of Football (ELF) will kick off its second season.

In the run up to the games, AFI is presenting each conference and the teams that comprise them.

In addition to the most impressive media campaign European football has seen, ELF added four new teams this year, replacing the 2021 two-conference model consisting of eight teams with 12 teams split across three conferences.

The ELF South, or the “traveling man’s” conference, will feature teams from three different countries, two of which are new entrants into the league.

Cologne Centurions 5-5: lost to Frankfurt Galaxy in division final

Last year the Centurions made it to the division final before losing out to eventual champions Frankfurt Galaxy. Their 500. record was representative of what was an inconsistent season that was mostly carried by a strong running game.

They will again be led by German national team quarterback Jan Weinreich who will be without running back Madre London who has since left for the USFL. To replace London, the Centurions have brought in Texas Tech alumnus Tre King. King was the lead rusher for the Red Raiders in his junior year but suffered a nagging injury in his senior year, preventing the same level of production.

Weinreich was an above average passer in his first season with the Centurions but will have to take the next step this year if he wants the team to be able to compete with Frankfurt or the Austrian teams. As good as King is, he will unlikely be as impactful as London was on the ground. This will put an additional layer of pressure on Weinreich to produce.

On defense the Centurions will be bolstered by a pair of UTEP alumni. Defensive lineman Chris Richardson and defensive back Kalon Beverly, who spent time with the Buffalo Bills and in the CFL, will both be immediately impactful on the field and add to an already solid defense.

Barcelona Dragons: 3-7 missed playoffs

Last year, the Dragons proved a lot of people wrong after concerns were raised about the quality of the Spanish domestic players. Despite their 3-7 record, they were one of the most electric teams to watch, in part thanks to the play of wideout Jean Constant.

This year, quarterback Zack Edwards will be returning but without the help of Constant who emigrated over to the Hamburg Sea Devils. He instead will be joined by former CFL draft pick, French receiver, Benjamin Plu. In addition to Plu, Edwards will have former Washington State receiver Kyle Sweet. Edwards was one of the league’s top passers last year and will look to improve on this.

Early in 2022 the Dragons signed former St Louis Ram, Michael Sam as a defensive line coach. But just a week before the regular season kicks off, they have now announced he will be playing too. Sam has not played football in seven years but was a dominant force in college. Expect his reps to be managed, but when on the field he will likely offer a game-changing performance.

Helping them in the back end of the defense will be Former Oregon State safety Shawn Wilson. Wilson will prove valuable for an already impressive secondary and will undoubtedly be complimented by the likes of Spanish standout Jordi Brugnani.

Istanbul Rams: new team

The Istanbul Rams is the brainchild of head coach Val Gunn. He took the then Koç Rams over in 2021 when they were in the Turkish domestic league. Gunn’s bidding proved successful, and the team announced their entry into ELF in October 2021 with a feeder team remaining in the Turkish league.

Turkish football is not known for producing high-impact players. This has drawn questions about how they will match up against the Germans and Austrians. To compound this, the Rams have left a number of holes on their roster vacant. 

Their quarterback, Jared Stegman, began his playing career in Australia but has since branched out to play in Sweden, Germany, and more recently, the Japanese X-League. His foray into European football was more successful than most non-American quarterbacks, but still falls short of the resumés most ELF quarterbacks bring.

A bonus for Istanbul having a non-American quarterback is that they can bring in more skill positions to help out the 32-year-old Stegman. But the team remains without a single American receiver. Their lone import is the relatively unknown Brit, Kris Wedderburn. Wedderburn is a tall, physical receiver who would be a perfect number two on any European offense but may struggle against American defensive backs.

The offensive backfield shows where Gunn’s priorities lie. Behind Stegman are two insanely fast running backs. Tyrese Johnson-Fisher went viral in 2015 during an U15 rugby match where he showed off his blazing speed and physical superiority. This earned him a spot at the All-America Game for high school prospects, the first non-American to achieve this accolade. He bounced around from DI to junior college football with limited success, but the 22-year-old’s outstanding physical attributes remain.

The other half of the backfield is Jalen Conwell. Conwell originally signed to play for Bethel University (NAIA) out of high school before opting to play his junior college football in Mississippi where eligibility issues cut his collegiate career short. Conwell has played in both Mexico and Ukraine as well as attending a CFL regional combine where he ran an unofficial 4.26 – a similar time to Johnson-Fisher.

On defense, the Rams have added European defensive back veteran Jamarii Milliken of Furman University Paladins and British safety Chad Walrond who recently featured at both the NFL and CFL global combines. Walrond played his first European season last year and will greatly benefit under the tutelage of Milliken.

The anchor of the whole team will undoubtedly be linebacker Zachary Blair. Blair has been playing in Europe since 2017 and even played for the ELF side Stuttgart Surge last year, bringing some much-needed experience to the Rams.

Rhein Fire: new team

NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire featured the likes of Fred Jackson, James Harrison and even actor Terry Crews, but in 2007, the Fire played its last snap. ELF Commissioner Patrick Esume however, on a mission to revive the pan-European league, brought it back to life late in 2021 with the announcement of the new ELF team.

As it was in NFL Europe, the Fire will again be based in Dusseldorf. Creating a team from scratch is never easy, but the Leipzig Kings showed last year that it can be done and still be competitive. Leading the team into ELF will be former NFL head coach Jim Tomsula who previously spent eight years coaching in NFL Europe, one of which was with Fire.

Fire’s quarterbacking responsibilities will lie with Matt Adam. The former Indiana State and Ferris State signal caller has spent the last two years playing in GFL 1 and 2 producing modest numbers.

Aiding Adam will be American Nathaniel Robitaille, the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns veteran receiver. In the backfield will be Tyrone Jordan Alexander and French running back Jason Aguemon who played his football in Leipzig with the Kings last year.

Whatever the team lacks in offense will surely be recompensed by their defense. With defensive minded Tomsula and a string of highly talented imports such as Lukas Ross, Christian Van Horn, Omari Williams and Daniel Duah, the Fire are unlikely to end up in shootouts.

The reemergence of the Fire in arguably the weakest conference, combined with a loaded roster may result in them being one of the surprise teams of 2022.

Daniel Mackenzie is a Press Association graduate who works in journalism and communications in the third sector. Daniel began playing football for the London Warriors and Team Great Britain and has since played across Europe.