San Diego Fleet season opener
Game action during last weekend’s season opener in San Antonio. Courtesy San Diego Fleet

The San Diego Fleet will play their first home game Sunday, hoping to attract more than 30,000 fans to SDCCU Stadium to surpass the largest crowd during the Alliance of American Football‘s first weekend of play.

However, the weather could cause a complication.

Rain is likely in San Diego Sunday, but shouldn’t be as heavy by 5 p.m. when the game against the Atlanta Legends begins with the opening snap, according to Stefanie Sullivan, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

The AAF has eliminated kickoffs as a safety measure. Games start with a league or municipal dignitary placing the ball on the 25-yard line where the opening snap takes place.

The largest crowd of the four games during the AAF’s first weekend was 27,857 at San Antonio’s Alamodome for the Commanders 15-6 victory over the Fleet Feb. 9.

One boost to the attendance was the purchase of 1,000 tickets by Manchester Financial Group, a hotel and commercial real estate development firm, and its Chairman Emeritus Papa Doug Manchester.

The tickets were donated to the Navy Seal Foundation, Southwest Naval Special Warfare, Third Fleet, Marine Corp Airstation Miramar and the Marine Corp Recruit Depot San Diego.

The team is encouraging fans to arrive early. A pregame party dubbed “The Dock Party” will begin at 1 p.m. with a beer garden, drink specials, food trucks, a disc jockey, games and a “family fun” section.

Gates will open at 3:30 p.m.

Tickets are priced from $20-$65.

Fans will receive a magnetic Fleet schedule and “Fleet Sunshine” pompoms.

The Fleet will make changes on offense, defense and special teams from their opener.

Philip Nelson will be the starting quarterback. He entered the San Antonio game on the Fleet’s first possession of the fourth quarter, replacing Mike Bercovici, who had thrown his second interception on the previous possession

“Mike’s just not ready,” Fleet coach Mike Martz said. “Mike going to be a real good player. Mike has not been in this kind of system, Phil has.”

Nelson was the starting quarterback for the Martz-coached Team National in the 2017 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl college football all-star game.

Nelson completed five of 10 passes for 68 yards with one interception against San Antonio. His three possessions ended with a punt, an interception and the game ending with Nelson throwing a long incomplete pass from the Commanders 35-yard line.

“I thought he was exceptional,” Martz said. “I loved his composure, his ability to break and run. Some of the throws he made under duress were exceptional.”

The Fleet chose Nelson with the final pick of the third round of the Alliance of American Football’s quarterback draft Nov. 27, the 24th overall selection. Bercovici was the first pick of the second round, the ninth selection.

Nelson started the final seven games of the 2012 season as a freshman with the University of Minnesota, started most of the 2013 season, transferred to East Carolina where he was the starter in the 2016 season.

Nelson was in the 2018 training camp of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The Fleet will also have a new punter, Sam Irwin-Hill, an Australian who missed the opener because of visa problems.

Irwin-Hill replaces Ryan Winslow, who was cut to make room for Irwin- Hill on the 52-player roster. Winslow averaged 44.0 yards on five punts against San Antonio.

Irwin-Hill punted and kicked in four preseason games with the Dallas Cowboys in 2017 but was cut before the start of the season.

Irwin-Hill averaged 44.3 yards per punt as a junior at Arkansas in 2013 and 40.1 yards as a senior in 2014. He began his college career by playing two seasons at City College of San Francisco.

The Fleet will be without one starter on defense Sunday and possibly two others.

Cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah fractured a wrist in the opener and will miss the game. He is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by Greg Ducre, whose nine games of NFL experience include four with the San Diego Chargers in 2014 and a start in the season finale.

Cornerback Ron Brooks is questionable because of a thigh injury. Backup Curtis Mikell is also questionable because of an ankle injury.

The  Fleet announced the signing of cornerback Xavier Coleman on Tuesday. He played two games with the New York Jets in 2017.

Linebacker Eric Pinkins is questionable because a thigh injury. His backup is John Lotulelei, who is questionable because of a knee injury.

Center Jeremiah Kolone who was expected to be the starter but missed the opener because of an ankle injury suffered in practice two days before the game, is listed as questionable.

A player listed as doubtful is unlikely to play. It is uncertain whether a player listed as questionable will play.

The game is a matchup of two of the three AAF teams who failed to score a touchdown in their openers. Atlanta was a 40-6 loser to the Orlando Apollos in its opener, committing four turnovers, leading to 12 points for Orlando.

“We’ve got to play a much cleaner football game,” Legends coach Kevin Coyle said. “We started our fairly decently. We scored on the opening drive and we didn’t give up any points in the first quarter, then things started to unravel a little bit.”

Atlanta’s only points came from 38- and 27-yard first-half field goals by Younghoe Koo, who was the Los Angeles Chargers kicker for the first four games of the 2017 season.

The Legends are quarterbacked by Matt Simms, who completed 19 of 39 passes for 195 yards and one touchdown with one interception in four games with the New York Jets in 2013 and 2014. He is a son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms.

Atlanta’s roster includes long snapper Jeff Overbaugh, a San Diego State alumnus, and linebacker Tau Lotulelei, who was cut by the Fleet Jan. 30 and is a brother of Fleet linebacker John Lotulelei.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.