USFL 2022: What to watch for in four Week 1 matchups

USFL 2022: What to watch for in four Week 1 matchups

Apr 14

By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer

As the inaugural United States Football League gets under way, here is one thing I am looking forward to seeing from each of the eight teams. 

Birmingham Stallions: Are these Scooby’s Stallions? 

Open season vs. New Jersey Generals
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, FOX and NBC/Peacock

The Stallions have the honor of opening the season in prime time at home against the New Jersey Generals at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama. Coach Skip Holtz wants that night to be special for his players and USFL fans.

Holtz has been boisterous and brimming with optimism since he was announced as one of the eight head coaches in the USFL, and he has built a coaching staff and roster that have me sharing his enthusiasm. 

Former All-American linebacker Scooby Wright will lead Holtz's defense and perhaps be the heartbeat of his team. 

"You can watch film [and] watch him run sideline to sideline, watch him hit people, see the energy that he plays with," Holtz said of Wright. "But when you talk about intangible things, when you talk about the leadership, the passion, the energy, the way that he plays the game, I think those are things that really excite me. When you're looking at a quarterback, you want a leader. When you're looking at a [middle] linebacker, you want a leader." 

Holtz — one of three former Conference USA coaches getting their first professional head-coaching chance in the USFL — wants to give Stallions fans a night to remember. He also wants to make the case that the USFL championship trophy has no reason to leave the state — at least once it's handed over at the conclusion of the season on July 3 in Canton, Ohio.

New Jersey Generals: How good can Riley’s QB be? 

Open season at Birmingham Stallions
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, FOX and NBC/Peacock

Generals head coach Mike Riley is renowned for his skill at evaluating and developing quarterbacks. That's why all eyes should be on New Jersey quarterbacks De'Andre Johnson and Luis Perez

Perez was signed after the Generals’ No. 1 pick, Ben Holmes, was released after he suffered an injury. But it always seemed likely that if a QB got hurt, Perez would find a way into the USFL — because he's just too good not to. 

Riley met Perez when both were working in the Alliance of American Football, and he has watched Perez's career continue since then. 

"I thought that Luis Perez would help our team," Riley said. "And even though we didn't have him, nobody else had selected him. I know everybody else looked at him real hard. I knew that he could help us. So I wanted to get him here." 

Johnson, having spent more time with the team, is the projected starter. In Thursday’s scrimmage, he made a couple of throws, and one play with his legs, that served as reminders of what a legitimate talent he is. He unofficially ran 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash and, with Riley at his side, could blossom into a polished quarterback in the USFL.

Houston Gamblers: How versatile and explosive are the Gamblers?

Open season at Michigan Panthers
12 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC/Peacock

With a Mean Machine look, Kevin Sumlin’s Gamblers have perhaps the best uniforms in the USFL. And they appear to have the skill and talent to match.

At the end of their scrimmage at Protective Stadium last week, Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher stopped to admire Gamblers players who were running gassers at the end of practice. He nodded, knowing that his Panthers open the season against them.

Among the players I’m most looking forward to watching — not just on the Gamblers but in the entire league — is former Florida running back Mark Thompson, who was a JUCO All-American and is best compared to Derrick Henry in style, size and physicality. 

Couple Thompson’s traits with Sumlin’s offense — which has a reputation for scoring and scoring quickly — and the Gamblers can become dynamic in a hurry. Sumlin selected QB Clayton Thorson with Houston’s first pick, and it would not shock me to see Sumlin give him as many opportunities as possible to throw the ball to Thompson and former Kansas State wide receiver Isaiah Zuber, among others. 

In Sumlin’s evaluation, Thompson’s versatility is what made him a must-have for the Gamblers.  

"A lot of these guys, their versatility moved them up in our eyes from a draft perspective — to be able to do things and not just be a positional player," he said. "And obviously, with a guy like him, he's got value all over the field and on special teams. So we're excited about him and another number of other guys just like that."

Michigan Panthers: Is Shea Patterson the best QB in the league? 

Open season vs. Houston Gamblers
12 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC/Peacock

Fisher’s Panthers might have the best quarterback room in the USFL, with former Michigan standout Shea Patterson and former NFL first-round selection Paxton Lynch. I’m interested to see just when and how Lynch plays this season, though Fisher has been adamant that he needs time to acclimate and develop. 

Patterson, the No. 1 pick in the 2022 USFL Draft, is likely to start for a Panthers team that many believe has a chance to win the league championship, with former college stars on both sides of the ball, including former Indiana running back Stevie Scott III and Iowa State defensive end JaQuan Bailey

"In these situations, you do your background checks, and you call people," Fisher said. "You call coaches, and oh my gosh, Coach [Jim] Harbaugh couldn't say enough great things about [Patterson]. And what a fan favorite we've come to realize he is. You get caught up in college football, and you lose kind of track of who the quarterbacks are. But man, that reception when it was released that he was going to be a Panther was really pretty cool."

Fisher, the best known of the USFL's coaches, will toe the sideline for the first time in six years. With a younger coaching staff and players hungry to succeed, he told me he feels energized and joyful about beginning the Panthers’ season on Sunday against Kevin Sumlin’s Gamblers.

New Orleans Breakers: How does Fedora’s offense look? 

Open season vs. Philadelphia Stars
4 p.m. ET Sunday, USA

Breakers coach Larry Fedora has a reputation for running single-back, no-huddle offenses that look to score on every play. But when practice ended last week at Bobby Bowden Stadium at Samford University — where Bowden, the legendary head coach, was an All-American quarterback and coach — Fedora was putting former Ohio State wide receiver Johnnie Dixon and North Carolina legend T.J. Logan through punt-catching practice. 

The moment stood out to me. In the humidity and heat after practice finished, not only were players continuing to get in some work, but the head coach was still working, too.

The Breakers began putting in their offensive and defensive schemes almost immediately after the supplemental draft ended last month, so they could hit training camp running. Like the Philadelphia Stars, they have a chance to begin the season on a high note. 

Kyle Sloter is projected to start at quarterback and will be the first to break a huddle for a Larry Fedora offense with Noel Mazzone calling plays as offensive coordinator. Fedora told me he hadn’t been in a huddle since 1996.  

"He's the type of quarterback we wanted," Fedora said of Sloter. "He’s a big guy that can pull the ball. He’s very athletic. He can run. He's a guy that processes very, very quickly. And that is so important and what we want to do on offense."

Philadelphia Stars: The dark horse to win the USFL title? 

Open season at New Orleans Breakers
4 p.m. ET Sunday, USA

The Stars are best positioned to begin the season firing on all cylinders. Head coach Bart Andrus and quarterback Bryan Scott worked with each other in The Spring League and are undefeated as a tandem.  

Scott, who is positioned to become a breakout star in this league, is surrounded by players he knows and who know him from his time in The Spring League.

"I can see that he has the talent, the ability," Andrus said. "All the things that I'm looking for in a quarterback, he has. This is going to be a great stage for him to show everybody exactly what he’s about."

Scott’s connection with tight end Bug Howard could become as entertaining to watch as Patrick Mahomes’ connection with Travis Kelce. Playing for Fedora at North Carolina, Howard caught 124 passes for 1,770 yards in three years. As a senior, he caught 53 passes for 827 yards in 2016. 

Andrus also put together a coaching staff filled with men who know how to coach, practice and plan in a league such as the USFL — i.e. with a limited roster, limited training camp and in close quarters with opponents. When I watched them practice last week at Legion Field, I was struck by just how cleanly their practices flowed and how in control of the offense Scott was.

Pittsburgh Maulers: Does Wilson’s ground-and-pound work? 

Open season vs. Tampa Bay Bandits
8 p.m. ET Sunday, FS1

Kirby Wilson’s first game as a head coach is in prime time on Easter Sunday night on FOX. He told me his wife and children will be in the stands at Protective Stadium to watch him toe the sideline against a familiar-face-turned-foe in Tampa Bay Bandits coach Todd Haley. 

Wilson — who slid into the role as a true head coach, being a motivator, mediator and mentor — has committed to letting his staff do their jobs. He isn't micromanaging, calling individual plays or managing substitutions. For a career NFL running back coach, this is not just new territory but also a new proving ground. 

Wilson told me that he’ll lean heavily on what he has learned from his 22 years as an NFL assistant, and he has made no secret that his team’s philosophy and attitude will resemble the city it represents. They’re going to run the ball and emphasize physicality at the line of scrimmage with former Big Ten tailbacks Garrett Groshek (Wisconsin) and Madre London (Michigan State). 

"Talking is good, but playing is a hell of a lot better," he said. "We want to play well. We want to play hard for four quarters until our playmakers make their plays — because they always do. 

Defensively, the Maulers will likely come out in a 3-4 scheme, asking former Michigan defensive end Carlo Kemp to help set an edge and former Vanderbilt safety Arnold Tarpley to help keep a lid on the back end.

"Defensively, when people watch us, I want them to say, 'They don't beat themselves,'" Wilson said. "'They run to the ball like mad. And they keep the ball in front of them.' You can't let the ball get thrown over your head." 

Crucially, the Maulers drafted perhaps the two best specialists in the USFL in former All-American punter Max Duffy and Nevada kicker Ramiz Ahmed. In two years as the Wolfpack’s kicker, Ahmed made 15 of 20 field goals and missed just once on kicks inside the 40-yard line.

Tampa Bay Bandits: Ta’amu's talent emerges? 

Open season at Pittsburgh Maulers
8 p.m. ET Sunday, FS1

When Jordan Ta’amu was selected No. 2 overall in the USFL Draft, he was overwhelmed with emotion. I spoke to him just moments after he walked off the stage in the stadium club at Protective, and he reflected on his journey through professional football. 

Six weeks later, he looked crisp in a light scrimmage on Thursday. If his offensive line, which features former USC offensive lineman Damien Mama, can give him time to throw, he’ll have speed down the field in the form of John Franklin III and Vinny Papale

"Not the most vocal, but he has the arm, has the ability," coach Todd Haley said. "He's one of those guys that you'd say, ‘Why is he not in an NFL team at least competing for a spot on the roster?' So [we're] really excited to have him. How it all played out is awesome. When you get the guy that most every other team wants, that's a good thing, right?" 

I expect Ta'amu to threaten defenses with his ability to run. I’ll be interested to see if the Maulers choose to spy him in the season opener and how Haley and offensive coordinator Bob Saunders adjust to the kind of defense Haley became familiar with as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.