SALT LAKE CITY — They’re good buddies off the field, even though they’ve never met on it.
That changes Saturday, when Dennis Erickson leads his Salt Lake Stallions against Steve Spurrier’s Orlando Apollos in the Alliance of American Football’s prime-time matchup of the day.
“We’re very good friends, probably one of my closest in this business,” Erickson said of the man affectionately known as Ol’ Ball Coach.
Spurrier and Erickson have combined for more than 80 years of experience coaching football at both the pro and college levels. For a few years, they were in Florida simultaneously coaching two of the premier college programs in the country — Erickson was the head coach at Miami from 1989-94, Spurrier at Florida from 1990-2001.
Yet, the two have never faced each other during their coaching careers.
“Denny was at Miami a lot of the years I was at Florida, and we were, actually, pretty good buddies — and still are good buddies. We tried to team up against (Florida State). Neither one of us, obviously, wanted to lose to FSU,” Spurrier, 73, told Apollos team reporter Tom Alexander. “Denny is an excellent coach, and does a super job with that team.”
Erickson, 71, said their long-running friendship — “Steve and I have been close friends for many, many years” — has included plenty of rounds of golf and vacationing together a couple of times. Spurrier and his wife, Jerri, even visited Erickson at his home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“Obviously he is one of the greatest, so it will be fun to compete against him,” Erickson said.
Saturday’s matchup is popular enough that the AAF flexed the Stallions-Apollos game at Rice-Eccles Stadium to prime-time, with a 6 p.m. MST start. The game will now be televised on NFL Network. The game was originally scheduled to start at 2 p.m. and air on Bleacher Report Live.
The Stallions (1-2) are coming off winning the franchise’s first game, a 23-15 victory over the Arizona Hotshots in the team’s home opener.
The Apollos (3-0), meanwhile, have the best offense in the Alliance. They’re averaging 32.7 points and 394 total offensive yards per game behind quarterback Garrett Gilbert.
Through three weeks, Gilbert has thrown for a league-high 827 yards (nearly 200 yards more than any other Alliance quarterback), has completed 59.3 percent of his passes and thrown five touchdowns to zero interceptions. He also has a rushing and a receiving touchdown.
"They have a very good quarterback. Their passing offense is really good. They challenge you in a lot of different ways. They have a lot of very good skill players, and they mix up their looks," said Salt Lake defensive end Karter Schult.
The Apollos offense also features two of the league’s top five leaders in receiving yards: No. 1 Charles Johnson (14 receptions for 305 yards and one touchdown) and No. 5 Jalin Marshall (seven catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns).
Running back D’Ernest Johnson has 171 rushing yards and a touchdown as well.
“Even though they’re pass-oriented, if you give them the run, they’ll take it. We’ve got to stop the run, and we’ve got to keep things in front of us, tackle well on defense," Erickson said. "They’re going to complete passes, we just can’t give up a bunch of big plays. They’ve gotten a lot of big plays in their offense this year."
Schult, who leads the AAF with four sacks, is confident the Stallions can match up well with Orlando.
"It's challenging, but obviously we look forward to it. We love a good challenge. We feel like we're the best defense in this league, and they probably feel like they're the best offense. We'll see who comes out on top."
On defense, Orlando is giving up just 17.3 points per game and has two defenders with multiple interceptions: Terence Garvin has an AAF-best three interceptions, while teammate Keith Reaser has picked off two passes.
By comparison, the Stallions have picked off one pass all season. The one interception, though, was critical in Salt Lake's win over Arizona last week, as linebacker Greer Martini's interception turned into a touchdown two plays later and gave the Stallions a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
“Turnovers are always huge. Last week we had a big-time turnover that turned into a touchdown, which is one of the reasons we ended up with the win. We know how big those turnovers are, especially for us on defense," Stallions starting free safety Micah Hannemann said.
Having a legend like Spurrier, who's known for his innovative offenses, coaching in Utah will be a rare treat for fans and players alike.
"I'm excited to play against his offense. We've been studying it up and luckily there's a lot of years to study from him. That's cool, being able to play against this legendary coach and with our coach," said Hannemann, an Alpine native.
There will be another coaching connection Saturday. The Stallions announced this week they have added Ron Zook to the staff to coach the team’s secondary and special teams.1 comment on this story
Zook was the head coach at Florida and Illinois in college during the 2000s and was most recently serving as special teams coordinator for the Green Bay Packers the past four years.
He served as an assistant coach under Spurrier at Florida in the ’90s and took over for Spurrier as the Gators’ head coach in 2002, when Spurrier left to coach the Washington Redskins.
“I coached with a lot of guys on that staff,” Zook told Stallions team reporter Chantel Buchi. “They’ve done a good job and this will be a great challenge for our football team. And from what I’ve seen, these guys are excited about it.”