The inaugural season of the Chinese Arena Football League kicks off on Saturday, Oct. 1 in an effort to grow the global fan base of football within the exhilarating confines of the arena format. As one of the six teams to take the field in the Super Series this fall, the Shenzhen Naja look to surprise the rest of their league with an approach that varied from some of the other teams in the league.
Coach J.W. Kenton arrived in China on July 20, a solid two months before the players and other coaches were expected to arrive. What strategy did he have that did not align with the rest of the league come draft day? “We were gonna draft the best Chinese players we could, and I think we did that,” he said in an interview for the CAFL website.
But even more than just drafting local players, “We had to come and teach fundamentals, so it was all part of the plan to come here early and teach a lot of the fundamentals of football.” And not just to his own players, but to several players who had been drafted around the league. “It started with just my players, but now players from other club teams and even players from most of the other CAFL teams have arrived to join some of our workouts.”
Kenton has been a high school football coach in the U.S. for 24 years, spending time in both Florida and Hawaii. He is approaching this opportunity as the teacher he is, starting with one of the most important aspects of being a professional athlete: “The number one thing I ask from my players is effort, and they give great effort.” He also mentioned starting with the most basic fundamentals, and working their way up from there.
That sentiment sounds ominous when discussing potential professional ball players, but in a market where football is a new phenomenon, this type of thinking and early action could be a huge advantage once the season starts.
Then again, while other teams stacked up on American talent, the Naja used half of their 20 draft picks to select Chinese players. Of the Americans on their roster, Dak Britt spent some time with the Indoor Football League recently, and Tristan Purifoy played for the Arizona Rattlers and Tampa Bay Storm in the AFL during the 2016 season.
Offensive lineman Colin Madison has been in the AFL for the last five seasons, on four different teams, and linebacker Terrance Smith spent five seasons with the Jacksonville Sharks before playing with the Los Angeles KISS last season.
So while there is a handful of area football experience prepared to take the field for Shenzhen come Oct. 1, the other ominous sign of not drafting a quarterback (Xie Kun) until their very last pick (after selecting their kicker) is a curious one to analyze.
The Naja open their season at home against the Dalian Dragon Kings. Kickoff at Shenzhen Dayun Arena will be at 6 a.m. ET.