The Tucson Sugar Skulls, whose season was canceled last year because of COVID-19 after a successful inaugural season in 2019, play their first game of the Dixie Wooten era tomorrow at 5:05 p.m. (Tucson time) at the Green Bay Blizzard.
Wooten is the longtime successful coach of the Iowa Barnstormers, who the Sugar Skulls play in their home opener on June at the Tucson Convention Center.
For Wooten, anything less than bringing a United Bowl championship trophy to Tucson would be a disappointment.
“With us, it’s all about championship or bust,” said Wooten. “I feel like we have a team that’s put in place to win a championship, so anything less than that is a bad season.
“One thing that these guys did is they bought in on day one because of the fact that they know that as a coach I’m proven and have won a championship, and now the sky’s the limit for this team.”
The Tucson Sugar Skulls finished 2019 under former coach Marcus Coleman with a record of 7-7 after losing to the eventual league champion Sioux Falls Storm 50-47 in the first round of the playoffs.
After the season, the Sugar Skulls hired Wooten, who is a two-time IFL Coach of the Year and winner of the 2018 United Bowl championship with the Barnstormers. Wooten was named the team’s general manager as well.
With the dangers of COVID-19 apparently decreased, because of vaccines administered, Wooten and the Sugar Skulls finally have a chance to build upon the team’s success in the 2019 season.
You might recognize some of the players on this season’s Sugar Skulls roster from their time playing at Power 5 schools in college, the CFL, the XFL, and the NFL.
They include defensive back Cory Butler-Byrd (Utah), defensive lineman Tai’Yon Devers (Minnesota) and offensive lineman Matthew Burrell (Ohio State), defensive lineman Chris Martin (Florida) and defensive back Matt Elam (Florida).
Elam was an All-American at Florida and was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. He played in 41 games over three seasons with the Ravens before playing a season with Sakatchewan in the CFL (2018) and a season for DC in the XFL (2020).
“Matt Elam brings a lot to the team,” Wooten said. “He brings leadership, he brings understanding, and he lets these guys know what it’s like to be an NFL player. He’s one of the first guys to walk in the building, and one of the last guys to leave.
“He takes care of his business everyday and his work ethic is second to none.”
Going into their second season on the roster are two former Southern Arizona high school standouts: defensive back Cam Gaddis who played at Santa Rita and Pima College and offensive lineman Antonio Rosales who played at Tucson High and San Diego State.
“I think they’re (Gaddis and Rosales) big time for the team,” said Wooten. “One thing about them is they work hard, they understand the game, and they’re a big part of what we have going on.
“Antonio, he’s one of our big guys up front that makes our offense go, so without him we would slow down a little bit, and Cam on the back end playing cornerback on defense, I feel like he’s gonna make a lot of plays this year and make our defense number one in the league.”
Offensive line coach Al Alexander, who was a longtime assistant and associate head coach with Dennis Bene at Salpointe before he joined Pat Nugent’s staff at Cienega last year, will be coaching in his first season with the Sugar Skulls. Alexander is also currently coaching on Nugent’s staff at Mica Mountain, in the high school’s second year of existence.
Wooten described the process of bringing Alexander onto the coaching staff which included a recommendation from Arizona safety and Desert Swarm icon Brandon Sanders, who was going to be an assistant coach with the Sugar Skulls before joining the staff at Arizona under Jedd Fisch this season as the coordinator of football alumni and high school relations.
“When I was looking for an O-line coach, I talked with ownership and one name kept popping up with Al,” Wooten said. “Then I talked to Brandon Sanders, an All-American at U of A, and Al’s name came up again so I reached out to him. We had a few conversations and it all worked and Al came on board. Since he came on board, I’ve been really impressed with his skills of getting guys to buy in and knowing how to coach the offensive line.
“He’s a cool, calm and collected guy, so when I get a little antsy he can always calm me down and things like that. Al being a part of this staff is great for us.”
Wooten has been busy at work in the offseason managing the organizational aspects of the team while preparing the Sugar Skulls for the season.
“First and foremost, You gotta go all over the nation to try and find great players, and this year we did that,” Wooten said. “We got solid players across the board at every position, and then when you get everybody here, then you put on the coach hat.
“Then it’s all about getting players to buy into your system, and how you run things as an organization.”
Wooten was particularly impressed by the way three players performed in training camp.
“We have a lot of guys here that played some good spring football,” said Wooten. “We have one by the name of Ryan Ballantine (Southern Miss), our receiver who is the all-time leader in catches in the IFL. Also we have Chris Martin, he led the league in sacks (in 2019), and also we have Mike Jones (Bethune-Cookman) that led the league in rushing (in 2019) as well.”
All three players earned All-IFL honors in 2019, with Ballantine earning his in Iowa where he played two seasons under Wooten and Martin capturing his with the Nebraska Danger, and Jones earning the accolade with the Sugar Skulls despite missing two games in the season.
With the home opener two weeks away, Wooten is excited to finally be able to play in front of Sugar Skulls fans at the TCC.
“Get your tickets, and just get ready to have fun with us in the TCC, you know, we’re trying to win a championship and nothing else,” Wooten said. “We want to bring the championship to Tucson and celebrate at the parade at the end of the season.”
Tucson Sugar Skulls 2021 Roster
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2021 Sugar Skulls’ schedule:
WEEK 1: Bye
WEEK 2: Friday, 5:05 p.m. @ Green Bay Blizzard
WEEK 3: May 29, 5:05 p.m. @ Duke City Gladiators
WEEK 4: June 5, 6:05 p.m. vs. Iowa Barnstormers
WEEK 5: June 12, 6:05 p.m. @ Arizona Rattlers
WEEK 6: June 19, 6:05 p.m. vs. Massachusetts Pirates
WEEK 7: June 26, 6:05 p.m. @ Northern Arizona Wranglers
WEEK 8: July 3, 6:05 p.m. vs. Arizona Rattlers
WEEK 9: July 10, 6:05 p.m. vs. Duke City Gladiators
WEEK 10: July 17, 7:05 p.m. @ Spokane Shock
WEEK 11: July 24, 6:05 p.m. vs. Bismarck Bucks
WEEK 12: July 31, 6:05 p.m. vs. Northern Arizona Wranglers
WEEK 13: Aug. 7, 6:05 p.m. @ Arizona Rattlers
WEEK 14: Aug. 14, 6:05 p.m. vs. Duke City Gladiators
WEEK 15: Aug. 21, 6:05 p.m. @ Northern Arizona Wranglers
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. He is currently attending Pima Community College where he writes for the Aztec Press. Next semester he will be attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he will work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.