A conversation with USFL VP of Operations Daryl Johnston

A conversation with USFL VP of Operations Daryl Johnston

Feb 7

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Football Analyst

A few days ahead of the 2023 USFL schedule release, I had a chat with FOX NFL broadcaster, Dallas Cowboys great and USFL Vice President of Operations Daryl Johnston, and I took down some notes that I think you’ll find illuminating as we gear up for the kickoff of Season 2 on Saturday, April 15.

Here are some takeaways from our conversation:

A path to the NFL

In 2022, KaVontae Turpin went from a journeyman pro football player who had flashed promise at TCU, to Most Valuable Player in the inaugural USFL season with the New Jersey Generals, to earning a spot on the Dallas Cowboys 53-man roster as a return specialist, to being selected to the Pro Bowl.

For Johnston, Turpin’s story is "unbelievable" and one of the reasons he wanted to help lead the USFL.

"That’s the hook here for this league," Johnston told me. "Giving these young men another opportunity. Sometimes, it's a non-traditional path back to the NFL. Sometimes it's just changing the narrative that's out there about you. Sometimes it's just showcasing your skill set. And I'm sure there's a lot of people in the NFL that thought that KaVontae Turpin was a little bit undersized. ‘Yeah, he's fast. He’s quick. But, boy, he's only about 165 pounds. Is he going to be able to last? Is he going to be able to take those big hits at that NFL level? And he showed us he could definitely do that." 

Expanding the hub

The USFL will feature four hub cities this season instead of just one. Birmingham, Alabama, will remain as the hub city for the Stallions and the New Orleans Breakers. Canton, Ohio, where the inaugural USFL playoffs were held in 2022, will be home to the New Jersey Generals and Pittsburgh Maulers. Detroit will be home to the Michigan Panthers and Philadelphia Stars. And Memphis will be home to the Memphis Showboats and Houston Gamblers.

Memphis will receive the honor of opening the USFL regular season, and Johnston is thrilled about that.

"It was a tough decision to shutter the Tampa Bay Bandits franchise," Johnston said. "But with the opportunity to get to Memphis and to work with a group that's in Memphis to buy into our USFL vision and to become a part of that family was just too good of an opportunity to pass by. Todd Haley, bringing his roster and his staff into Memphis is going to be great. As we sit here now and talk about the city of Memphis, one of the things that is very critical for the USFL family is to engage in the community. I think Memphis right now is a community that could use a little bit of love from all over the country, and we hope to be able to get our guys and our staff into that community and really start to engage and start that healing process from what's happened there recently."

A star QB to watch?

Johnston claims — and I agree — that Breakers quarterback Aqeel Glass could be a star in this league. Glass, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound signal-caller, led Alabama A&M to its first-ever HBCU football national title in the spring of 2021 and its first SWAC title since 2006. 

"That was one of the guys that we were chasing all last season," Johnston said. "It was just a game of wait and see. And (USFL director of player personnel) Jim Popp never gave up on it and kept chasing him. And now that he's come over to our side, and he's going to be in New Orleans, I really think this could be something that gives him an opportunity like 50-plus of our guys had last year to get that invitation to that NFL training camp once our season’s over."

Thoughts on new coach Mike Nolan

I learned from Johnston in the middle of our interview, that Michigan Panthers head coach Jeff Fisher had chosen to step down, and his vacancy would be filled by former San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan. He’ll join Breakers coach John DeFilippo and Maulers coach Ray Horton as first-year USFL coaches. 

[USFL hires Mike Nolan to be head coach of Michigan Panthers]

"We got close on a couple of potential candidates who were very complimentary on what we did here, who became fans of the USFL during the last season, and the timing was just not right," Johnston said. "We kept grinding and kept looking. And, boy, did we find a great one. So Mike Nolan is going to be the head coach of the Michigan Panthers here in Year 2.

"A lot of people will say that [Generals head coach] Mike Riley is the nicest man you'll ever meet in football. I'd say that Mike Nolan is probably the second-nicest man you'd ever meet in football. So we're really excited to welcome him into the USFL family and can't wait to see what he does assembling his staff and really starting to get that roster fine tune."

Looking to develop coaches, too

The Pittsburgh Maulers defense might be one of the best in the league again this season, and the team quietly put the most players in NFL training camps in 2022. Defensive coordinator Jarren Horton made a name for himself and is on the USFL’s radar as a potential head coach.

"Jarren was one of our internal guys that a lot of people talked about when we had those first two (USFL head coach) openings when we went through the traditional process of doing a head coach search," Johnston said. "So he's definitely somebody that I’ll be looking forward to moving ahead here in the USFL as one of our guys internally that we're going to want to promote.

"So I'm excited to spend a little bit more time watching and following Jarren because we were so busy with everything last year, getting everything propped up in the league, that one of the things I didn't get to do was spend as much time as I wanted to at some of the practices. So I'm really looking forward to having the opportunity to get to meet and to know Jarren on a different level, a deeper level."

Horton will work for his father Ray Horton, the new head coach in Pittsburgh.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube.

More on the USFL schedule release from FOX Sports: