SIOUX CITY | It is a two-week stretch that almost brought tears to his eyes.
Cliff Stokes was emotional because his interception had just sealed a win over a rival in hostile territory, but his play the past two games probably has quarterbacks facing the Sioux City Bandits defense wanting to curl up into the fetal position.
Stokes, a defensive back in his fourth season with the Bandits, has picked off five passes the past two games, including one in the end zone last Friday to seal the 63-56 overtime victory over the Omaha Beef.
“I kind of wanted to cry a little bit because I wanted the game to be over and I didn’t want to lose,” said Stokes. “Once I got the interception I was relieved, the burden was off my shoulders and I could celebrate with my team.”
“This is wonderful right now, I am glad I am finally getting it rolling. At first I was just getting mad because I wasn’t getting as much action or I was just getting pass breakups. Now I feel like the interceptions are rolling in.”
Stokes had three interceptions two weeks ago in Sioux City's 62-35 victory over Kansas City and returned one 54 yards for a touchdown. That was followed by two against the Beef.
“He has had a great two weeks, playing real sound and making great plays on the ball and helping us out,” Bandits defensive coordinator John Zevenbergen said. “Last year (safety) Rahn Franklin goes down and Cliff steps in and plays free safety for us the majority of the season. So you see things from a whole different perspective and maybe you get more of a global view of things.”
Stokes will have to wait a week to add to his interception total as the Bandits are off this week.
Stokes, who played college football at Iowa State, said the indoor game took some time to get used to but he certainly seems to be coming into his own.
“It is slowing down tremendously for me now and I have more patience,” he said. “At first, coming straight out of college and playing arena football, I really didn’t know how the game was played other than it was fast-paced. It is so much smaller, field is shorter, don’t have much room for error.”
Stokes is hardly the lone playmaker in the defensive backfield for the Bandits. He is joined by veterans Franklin and Jon Smith along with talented newcomers to the Bandits in DeWayne Autrey and Jemichael Williams.
“We have two previous defensive players of the year on our team in Autrey and (linebacker) Marlon Lobban and one of them doesn’t even start,” Zevenbergen said. “The two new guys … they have really picked up the system because they are vets and really good ball players.”
Stokes believes he knows a big reason for the success the unit has enjoyed this season.
“We really talk, talk a lot and communicate,” he said. “I think this is our best defensive group and I love it.”
The Bandit defense is off to a strong start this season – allowing just 37.6 points per game – and that is not by accident as Zevenbergen, in his seventh season as a coach after three years as a player, works hard to master his craft.
“I am probably watching four to five hours of film a week,” he said. “We are watching an hour of film together (as a defense), and I am sending out playlists of whatever we have scouted and things to watch for.
“It is much different than outdoor football and I think we have kind of boiled it down to some simple rules guys can follow.”
Zevenbergen knows he has a lot of talent in his defensive backfield and looks for it to continue to play a key role this season.
“This is the deepest we have been by far,” he said. “The biggest thing about our secondary is we travel five defensive backs and I feel all five of them can play every single position if we need them to. We have two corners in Jemichael and Cliff where I feel we can play a lot of man coverage and lock people down and Rahn can roam back there and make plays in the air.
“Jon Smith and DeWayne Autrey are playing strong safety underneath most of the time, but they are getting good at rerouting and finding the hole they need to be in.”
The defense has had its impact at each level with Lobban leading the linebackers while a largely new defensive line has been terrorizing opposing quarterbacks led by Devon Bridges’ seven sacks in five games.