Shane Austin excited to be back at QB for AFL Portland Steel
HIS FIRST GAME IS MONDAY AGAINST HIS FORMER TEAM, THE CLEVELAND GLADIATORS/
Shane Austin has gone full circle.
In his case, full circle took him from Cleveland to Portland to Saskatchewan (via Orlando and Atlanta) to Albuquerque and back to Cleveland, from where he will return to Portland on Tuesday.
But first, and more to the point, Austin is about to get a fresh start with the AFL Portland Steel and hell get it in an Arena Football League road game at 5 p.m. PT Monday against the Cleveland Gladiators.
If any AFL team could use a fresh start, its Portland (or the Tampa Bay Storm). Portland (0-5) and Tampa Bay (0-6) are the only winless teams in the eight-team indoor league.
Portland can do something about its losing streak when it meets the 2-4 Cleveland Gladiators the team Austin played for in 2014 and 2015.
And theres a good chance Austin will be at quarterback against his former team.
I think I can fit right back in with Portland, says Austin, a fourth-year AFL player. Im just happy be back playing football again, excited to get back on the field.
The 26-year-old QB from Santa Monica, California went from the University of Hawaii to the AFL, getting his first pro experience in 2013 with the Pittsburgh Power. He then threw for 200 touchdowns over the next two years, both in Cleveland. After the 2015 season, he became a free agent and signed with Portland.
Before he could get to the Rose City, the league assumed control of the team and changed coaches, installing Ron James as head coach/general manager.
That was OK with Austin; James had served as defensive coordinator in Cleveland.
But shortly after Austin arrived in Portland for Steel training camp, he got an offer from the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. He signed with Saskatchewan and went to camps with them in Orlando and Atlanta.
All my focus was on Canada, he says, although I still kept in touch with teammates in Portland.
A week or so ago, it became apparent that the 6-1, 200-pounder wasnt going to make Saskatchewans 2016 roster.
It was all a numbers thing, he says. I felt like I did really well, but they brought in 10 quarterbacks, including three signed guys. I was listed at No. 4 and was the only other signed guy, but eventually they basically told me they were going to let me go.
AFL contracts remain in effect when players go to another league, so Austin had the option to come back to the Steel. To him, that was a no-brainer. He thought it over while at his offseason base in Albuquerque, where his fiancee lives, and decided to fly directly to Cleveland to meet up with the Steel this week as they were practicing for Mondays game at Quicken Loans Arena.
What about the irony of his first game finally in a Portland uniform being against the team he spent the two previous seasons with before leaving via free agency?
You couldnt write this script, he says. Its pretty funny my first game back is at the Q, which is pretty much where it all started for me.
When Austin first came to the Steel, he was No. 1 on the QB depth chart, with Danny Southwick No. 2 and Kasey Peters No. 3. Southwick started the first three games, then was released. Peters started Game 4, but was released. Darron Thomas, the former Oregon Ducks star, started Game 5 last week his first football action in nearly a year because of a knee injury and surgery/rehab.
Now Thomas and Austin are the only QBs on the Steel roster, and Thomas, who lacks the Austins extensive game experience, is likely to wind up waiting in the wings again.
Hes a great guy, a great team player, Austin says. Hes the kind of guy you want on your team. Theres no issues between him and me.
How fast can Austin make an impact with a team that has had trouble across the board this season and has allowed a league-high 67.4 points per game?
Ive already told the team, One guy is not going to make a huge difference, but now that Im here Im going to give it everything Ive got, he says. Weve just got to stay confident. Even if you get down on the scoreboard, its OK, because you can get back quickly in this game.
Even while pursuing a CFL job, Austin kept close tabs on the Steel.
I watched every game I could while I was gone, and watched the ones I missed on film or replay, he says.
What about the pass protection, which has been hit and miss and miss, with Southwick, Peters and Thomas all facing severe pressure at times?
Im not worried, he says. Weve got some good offensive linemen. Last year in Cleveland, we went through six different O-line starters and it didnt affect our offense.
One way to get around any protection issues is to get rid of the ball quickly, and Austin says that is one of his strengths as an arena quarterback.
This game fits my attributes and skill set, he says. Ive got a quick release, and I like to get the ball out in a hurry. Sometimes in the outdoor game, I had to really slow myself down and not make the throw so quickly.
Austin has some foot speed, too, and it helps to be mobile and to be able to make the defense miss.
Austin was 23-13 as a starter with Cleveland. He led the league last year in completions (416) and ranked second in TD passes (101).
A bunch of great guys, and coaching staff, too, he says of the Gladiators. Ive seen a bunch of them since I got here this week. No hard feelings. Theyre all happy to see me. Not that theyre going to make it easy on me. But itll be friendly competition.
Itll also be the first chance, with Austin aboard, for Portland to turn around its season.
Its always tough when you have injuries like weve had, Austin says of the Steel. This team has gone through a lot of adversity. But theres no excuses, really. Youve got to deal with everything. And 0-5 doesnt define us theres a lot of talent on this team, its just a matter of doing the little things consistently.
Theres still a lot of time to get things going, and the good thing is that this group still has a lot of confidence.