Albany Empire head coach Rob Keefe took a huge sigh of relief last week when star receiver Malachi Jones took a slight detour from practice before the team’s game against the Columbus Destroyers at Nationwide Arena to work out for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
Fortunately for the league-leading 4-0 Empire, Jones wasn’t signed by the Titans, and he recorded another outstanding performance against the Destroyers with 10 receptions for 179 yards and three TDs as the Empire beat Columbus 56-40.
Jones, the reigning Arena Football League’s Wide Receiver of the Year, will once again be the focal point of the Empire’s offense this week against the 2-2 Atlantic City Blackjacks Saturday night at 7:05 in Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall. But Keefe knows that the Empire must continue to develop its depth at all positions, especially at the receiver and injury-plagued offensive line positions. Jones is likely to visit more NFL training camps, and he could be swept away at any time.
“It’s bittersweet,” Keefe said about the NFL’s continued interest in his top receiving threat. “We want the best for these guys. We want our guys to have a great life playing pro football. If the Tennessee Titans did sign him, we were prepared to move on.
“To think that’s going to be the only workout that Malachi has this year is unreasonable. We’ve got to get our younger guys up to speed so if we do lose him to the NFL, we’ll be prepared.”
The speedy Jones leads the Empire in receptions (33), receiving yards (529) and TDs (eight). He tops the entire league in the last two categories.
Jones admitted earlier this week at practice that working out for the Titans was a thrill and that he has mixed feelings about not being offered an NFL contract.
“It’s a great feeling being asked to try out again,” Jones said. “I attribute those kinds of things to our organization here. We have a great coaching staff with great teammates to help me. Obviously, that’s [the NFL] where I want to be, but it’s nice to have that opportunity. It’s a business. I get it. I’ll continue to work hard, and hopefully, I’ll get another chance.”
Jones said the workout with the Titans went well, and he received excellent feedback.
“Basically I had a great workout,” he said. “They told me they liked the fact that I’m a big-body receiver who can catch the ball in traffic. At the end of the day, they said I’m on the short list of going back for another try if there are injuries, etc. I’m thankful they gave me the opportunity.”
Jones quickly had to switch his emotions from disappointment to work mode in order to get ready for last week’s game with the Destroyers.
“Everything felt normal,” he said. “As soon as I got notified that I wasn’t going to be signed by the Titans, I went back to work immediately. I watched tape on the Destroyers for 12 hours while I was at the airport. I told coach Keefe I was coming back as soon as I got the news, and I’ve continued to pick up where I left off.
“I’m grateful to be able to come back here and play. It’s a grind, but I love it. If the opportunity presents itself for another tryout, I’ll be ready to go.”
OL LINE DEPTH TESTED AGAIN
The Empire needed several players on the offensive line to step up after the team lost several guys in the trenches against the Destroyers.
Jordan Mudge was ejected following an argument with an official, and Mo Ruffins went down with an injury. The team is already playing without last year’s Offensive Lineman of the Year, Hayworth Hicks, who is sitting out with an injury he suffered in the first game of the season.
To shore up the OL, Keefe moved 6-foot, 295-pound fullback Mykel Benson to guard, and backup lineman Jakobi Smith also got more playing time. Backup fullback/LB Jeramie Richardson, took over for Benson.
Benson, who broke free for a huge 16-yard run in the first half before switching positions, said he enjoys his versatile role with the team.
“Whatever we need to win,” Benson said. “I had fun moving up front. That’s no lie. It’s different blocking from the fullback position to the guard position. The angles are different and my steps are different. But I go through drills with the OL every week in practice, just in case something happens. We’re blessed to have two great fullbacks, so it was an easy decision when one of our linemen went down for me to move up front and have Jeramie takes over at fullback.”
By the way, Benson is moving up on the AFL’s all-time rushing list. He now has 1,677 yards, just 28 shy of Bernard Morris, who is No. 2 on that list.
“When I get the ball in the open field, my plan is to try and make something happen,” Benson said. “Next time, I’ll take it in for the TD. I was upset I got tackled by a DB the last game. I know I’m moving up on the rushing list. I’ve been in the league for eight years, and the league has changed a lot in how the teams use their running backs. I’m passing lots of all-time greats.”
Empire QB Tommy Grady threw seven TD passes for the second consecutive game and leads the league with 23 scoring tosses.
Rookie defensive back Tevin Homer recorded his first AFL interception last week and leads team in tackles with 26.
Christian Briggs, a 6-5, 230-pound wideout and special teams performer, has an ACL injury and is out for the season.
Former AFL MVP Randy Hippeard is the quarterback for the Blackjacks. His top three receivers, Kendrick Ings, Antwane Grant and Lamark Brown, each has more than 20 receptions and 200 receiving yards. Brown has 11 total touchdowns.
“The Blackjacks are a good team,” Keefe said. “They are 2-2, and both of their wins are at home. Their kicker, Mark Lewis, kicked for me at Orlando and is a former Kicker of the Year. Expansion team or not, they are ready to be a big-time football team. We don’t want to get complacent. Every game is different. Our goal is to score on every possession, but when we don’t, our defense picks us up.”