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Avengers like their chances

Times Staff Writer

Ed Hodgkiss has coached the Avengers since October 2001, and his 52-42 regular season record ranks among the best among Arena Football League coaches in their first six seasons in the league.

But Hodgkiss understands he will always be judged by his team’s success in the postseason, and he considers the 2008 Avengers capable of winning the franchise’s first Arena Bowl championship.

“I really don’t believe that we have any holes,” Hodgkiss said of the Avengers, who will kick off the season against the New Orleans Voodoo at Staples Center tonight.

His players agree.

“I don’t like to say things like this, but you can feel it,” said nose guard Jason Stewart, who signed a two-year contract with the team after testing the free-agent market in the off-season.

“You can feel that this team has something special. We just have to go out and prove it each week.”

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Why so much optimism for the Avengers?

Start with third-year quarterback Sonny Cumbie, who led the Avengers to a 9-7 record and their first-ever playoff victory last season.

In the quarterback-dominated AFL, Cumbie realizes his development will be the key to the Avengers’ season, and the former Texas Tech standout says he’s ready.

“My confidence level,” Cumbie said when asked what his biggest difference was from last season. “With each year, it just grows more and more.

“I know that I need to be more consistent. That’s something that I’m aware of because last season, I would have four or five weeks in a row of good football and then I would have a week where I didn’t play so well. In this league, you can’t have that.”

Former USC standout Lonnie Ford, who led the Avengers in rushing and scored 19 touchdowns last season, will again be the main force behind the ground attack, and the team’s receivers rank among the league’s best.

Playmaker Kevin Ingram will be a go-to receiver for Cumbie but not the quarterback’s only target. LaShaun Ward emerged as a quality threat last year, and Timon Marshall, signed as a free agent during the off-season, led the AFL in all-purpose yards last season in 13 games with the Grand Rapids Rampage.

Defensively, the Avengers should be more consistent behind Stewart and ends Josh Jeffries, Ken Jones and former UCLA standout Justin Hickman.

Safety Damen Wheeler, who had a career-high six interceptions last season, returns, but the key to the defense may be linebacker Robert Quiroga.

Playing the “Jack” position, Quiroga will be able to enjoy the AFL’s new rule that allows him to roam from sideboard to sideboard after the snap.

Special teams will look different with the departure of Remy Hamilton, the Avengers’ long-time kicker who signed as a free agent with Dallas. Former USC kicker David Davis will succeed Hamilton.

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TONIGHT

vs. New Orleans, 7:30

Site -- Staples Center.

Radio -- 1150, 1330.

Records (2007 season) -- Avengers 9-7, Voodoo 5-11.

Record vs. Voodoo (2007) -- 1-0.

Update -- After starting five games last season, Steve Bellarsi is expected to be the No. 1 quarterback for New Orleans. The Avengers are 4-4 all-time in season openers.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com


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