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Knight Hawks looking to learn from inaugural season mistakes in year No. 2

Vegas Knight Hawks head coach Mike Davis speaks with the media following a game inside The Dollar Loan Center. Photo Credit: Duna Haigler

It’s been radio silent from the Vegas Knight Hawks team and staff as a whole since the conclusion of their inaugural season.

Amidst the select secular silence, the IFL’s National Championship was contested inside The Dollar Loan Center, the Knight Hawks’ home venue in August of last year.

“Being the team here in Vegas, you want to be in it,” head coach Mike Davis said. “But also understanding being an expansion team, how tough it is with the ups and downs in getting a team off the ground.”

The national title game was won by the Northern Arizona Wranglers, a team that won one game a year prior. By those standards, Vegas is ahead of schedule after posting a 6-10 record in its inaugural season.

“It just shows you that anything can happen,” Davis said. “They caught lightning in a bottle just like [title game opponent Quad City] … If you go back and look at their games – all of their games – the ball bounced their way every time. To my recollection, they didn’t have one time where I looked at the film and said, ‘They didn’t get the bounce.’ They just did a great job.”

Prior to the start of the Knight Hawk’s first season, Davis, who also serves as the team’s general manager, was quoted as saying things would be looking up if the team came away with a .500 record after the team’s first four games.

“That was a little bit of both [roles talking],” he said. “You can’t roll back time but we should’ve been 2-0 and you kind of go from there. You end up losing your quarterback Jaylon [Henderson] to Japan, you lose your two best defensive linemen to injuries and then it snowballs on you.”

Vegas would open the year by beating the eventual champs, Northern Arizona, in the lowest scoring game in the league last year with a 22-9 final score.

Following the win, the Knight Hawks suffered major special team woes in a nine-point loss to the Tucson Sugar Skulls before hanging 53 points in a win against Bay Area. The four-game stretch to start the year closed with a 67-20 loss to the Arizona Rattlers, a team that would eventually finish first in the Western Conference.

Through the first four weeks of the season, Vegas experienced the highs of the highs and the lows of the lows of its new league.

Quarterback Jerod Evans loses his helmet during Vegas' home loss to Northern Arizona. Photo Credit: Duna Haigler

“You go back to game one against Arizona and it was 4,500 people in here,” Davis said. “It’s electric, it’s loud and people are just overwhelmed. Then you take that and go to Tucson and we’re battling back-and-forth but you get a chance to get there and you can’t. Guys had to understand that’s why all facets of this are important but guys need to go through that.”

This young expansion team was tested with a three-game road trip next during their first-year schedule including a trip to see the defending champion, Massachusetts Pirates.

In a rematch with Northern Arizona, Vegas lost by 10. That was followed up with a 34-25 lost to the Green Bay Blizzard but that game was unlike any other on the schedule.

After being obliterated in the first half to the tune of 34-0, the Knight Hawks’ defense pitched a shutout against the Blizzard in the second half but fell just short of fully completing the comeback effort.

“The problem with us is you get an injury first,” Davis said. “[Quarterback Kare Lyles] goes down and you put a guy, Frank Brown, into the situation and was like, ‘I don’t want you to do too much but I need the surrounding cast to step it up not one notch but two notches.’”

Brown finished the game at quarterback despite being listed as a wide receiver on the team’s roster.

The trip ended on a high-note for Vegas as the team shocked fans around the league by beating the reigning champs from last season, beating the Pirates on the road in a tight two-point finish.

“[After Green Bay] it was more of the feeling that we have the confidence that we could play with anybody,” Davis said. “We just did something that is almost unheard of. We stayed overnight in Green Bay and guys were hanging out in the lobbies like, ‘Here’s the plan of attack for the rest of the season.’”

That high didn’t last long as the Knight Hawks would go on to lose two of their next three games. The team picked up a road win against the San Diego Strike Force but lost both of its home games from inside The DLC.

“[The marketing] team works their butts off to make sure this is a fun environment,” Davis said. “And we hadn’t held up our end on the football field. It’s not about excuses, my job is to put guys in the right spot.”

Matters got worse as Vegas lost to the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, the Frisco Fighters, by three touchdowns. The team did however, beat a lowly San Diego team for a second time in four weeks. That also marked one of the team’s two series sweeps during the year.

By that point of the season, Davis and company were on the team’s sixth quarterback of the year and its fifth different starter.

“The one thing you can’t account for is injuries,” Davis said. “The second thing you can’t account for is when you recruit good players, you’ve got to expect people to take notice. Nobody knew Jaylon Henderson was going to get $150,000 to go play in Japan.

“Who in their right mind goes through six quarterbacks in a 16-game season and continues to be competitive? You look at some of the NFL teams [last season] on their second and third quarterback and they’re struggling.”

Last season, Knight Hawk quarterbacks combined for a 55% completion percentage, throwing for just over 2,400 yards with 57 touchdowns and 15 interceptions with four different QBs posting efficiency ratings of 129.9 or better.

The aforementioned Dukes had an efficiency rating of 158.3 as he threw for more than 1,100 yards with 27 touchdowns versus just five interceptions. He ended the year as the only quarterback on the roster with at least 1,000 yards passing with the next closest sitting at 640 yards.

Dukes was expected to be the starting quarterback coming into this season but was recently signed by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

Despite appearing to have the quarterback situation under control, Vegas lost its next two games by a combined 10 points. These losses include a seven-point road loss to Tucson and a one-point home loss to the Quad City Steamwheelers. Quad City was the other half of the IFL National Championship game.

“We beat Northern Arizona once,” Davis said. “We lost to Quad City on the last play of the game. For us, if you go back and look at our season, I think we lost [five] games by [10] points or less, all within the last two minutes of the game. One thing [we] have to learn in this game is we have to learn how to finish.

“If you take half those games that we lost in the last two minutes, we [would’ve] been the No. 2 seed, kind of, laughing through the playoffs.”

Davis said at least 10 members of last year’s team contacted him after seeing who’d play in the IFL title game to say it was “sickening” because “we beat one and should’ve beat the other.”

The kicking game played a big part in those back-to-back losses for the Knight Hawks as the group missed two point-after attempts and one field goal in the seven-point loss to the Sugar Skulls. Additionally, the team lost to the Steamwheelers on a last-second touchdown with three seconds left in regulation but had missed two extra points prior to the final sequence.

A kicking combination of Nathan Criswell and Nolan Kohorst collaborated to make seven of their 21 attempted field goals with one being blocked. The duo went 2-for-9 on field goal attempts from 40 yards and beyond while going 3-for-6 on attempts between 1 and 29 yards.

“Atrocious,” Davis said. “[Kicking affected] four games for sure, at least. Against Tucson, we missed 12 points and we lost by [nine]. Against Quad City, the missed extra point ends up costing us the game. Those two just ring in my head and if you take those four we’re 10-6 and not 6-10.”

Vegas split its final two games of the season by beating Bay Area for a second time but losing to Arizona for a second time as well. During Week 18 of the 19-week IFL schedule, the Knight Hawks were eliminated from playoff contention.

Heading into this season, the roster will look drastically different.

“We were kind of decimated with the CFL taking 11 guys,” Davis said. “The XFL took eight guys, we only have a 25-man roster. The nice thing about us is we have a running back coming back, we have some receivers coming back and a couple of defensive linemen and [defensive backs]. So we have some guys that were our nucleus, core guys that are coming back.

“I expect some good things. The first year was all about foundation and we did that.”

Another chance to get it right lies ahead for Vegas as it gets ready to kick off its second season in the IFL. That campaign begins Saturday, March 25 from The Dollar Loan Center as the team welcomes in the Iowa Barnstormers.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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