By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
As the inaugural United States Football League gets under way, I am breaking down things I look forward to seeing from each of the four Week 1 matchups.
(For the rest of the Week 1 matchups, go here.)
Houston Gamblers: How versatile and explosive are the Gamblers?
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?
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.