Clearly ready for team pictures, Wichita Wild star Darius Fudge walked through the team offices wearing both the usual (his ever-present grin) and the unusual(jersey No. 7) on Saturday morning.
For the previous two seasons, the elusive running back sported No. 28 as he ripped through defenses as one of the top running backs in the Indoor Football League.
No. 7 was his number at Western Carolina.
"So how do I look?" he asked several teammates. "Huh, how do I look?"
Fudge's jersey is a slight alteration that only the diehards will take note of, but the Wild is hoping to display substantial offensive changes this season that the rest of the IFL can't help but notice.
Last year, the Wild was ninth in the 25-team league in scoring (45.6 points per game) and 17th in total yards (223). Coach Ken Matous, whose team reached the conference championship game for the second straight season, said the offense was too predictable.
Opponents were too often able to focus on the team's top offensive players: all-star wide receiver Clinton Solomon, who was third in the league in catches with 81 and Fudge, who tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns with 26.
Both players are back, and Matous thinks he has the right personnel to provide the duo much-needed help.
"We're gonna be able to do more things, instead of just the standard offensive stuff," Matous said. "I want teams to have to defend us at all spots, not just at two positions."
The Wild will begin pursuit of such an offense when training camp opens today at Hartman Arena. Matous expects 38 players to report.
Although an indoor rookie, the highest-profile addition is former Kansas running back Jake Sharp, a Salina Central High School grad who finished No. 10 in rushing (2,239 yards) and third in rushing TDs (23) on the Jayhawks' career charts.
With the Wild, he is expected to get a few carries but spend most of his time as a slot receiver — a plan that could bring an added dimension to the offense while showcasing Sharp's talents. Sharp went undrafted in the 2010 NFL draft; he said teams question whether he is an NFL running back but wonder if he could "be a Wes Welker type of guy."
"I think I'm gonna play a lot of receiver, and that will really help me," he said. "But like I've said before, helping this team win some games is my main priority. Who knows how I'll do. We haven't even practiced yet. But I'll give it my all, like I always do."
Matous soured on Dixie Wooten's play last season, so the Wild will have a new quarterback. The heavy favorite to start is Alex Rouse, who played at Carson-Newman College, an NCAA Division II school in Jefferson City, Tenn. In 2010, he led the Seinajoki Crocodiles to the championship game of the Finnish Maple League.
The 6-foot-4 Rouse can run and throw, and he's a natural leader, Matous said.
On Saturday, when the Wild opened camp with meetings, Rouse showed that leadership by dutifully complimenting his "supporting cast," mentioning Solomon, Fudge and several other players.
In addition, he said his quick reactions and instincts will be perfect for the indoor game, and he expects his scrambling to help the Wild move the ball.
"I can sit in the pocket and throw it, but I can also take off," Rouse said. "That is always surprising to some teams — a skinny, tall white boy back there all of a sudden just taking off."
The Wild is also expecting big contributions from wide receiver Edgar Givens, who emerged during the playoffs last year. The 6-4 Central Missouri State product has put on weight, up to 226 pounds, and could be the perfect complement to Solomon.
"He's a tough kid, but his range on balls is what really has me excited," Matous said.
Finally, Matous was one of the few to actually give Fudge an answer to his "How do I look?" question. As Fudge walked by in full uniform, the veteran coach looked up and said, "You look good, Fudge. You look good."