USFL 2023 season preview: Gamblers to lean on speed, led by mobile QB Kenji Bahar
The Houston Gamblers struggled offensively last season, but they hope to be faster — and thus better — in 2023.
By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports USFL Writer
Looking to create a spark on offense, the Houston Gamblers are counting on athletic quarterback Kenji Bahar to lead them when the team opens the USFL season this weekend against the Michigan Panthers.
New Gamblers head coach Curtis Johnson said Bahar won the job in a three-man competition that included Terry Wilson and Montell Cozart.
"He’s shown that he can handle things and really run the offense," Johnson said about Bahar. "I like his throwing style. He’s part runner, part thrower. He does some drop-back stuff well, and he’s a pretty accurate thrower, a very smart guy.
"We’re trying not to put too much on him, but I think he’s the guy right now."
Bahar completed 61% of his passes for 541 yards, with two touchdown passes and two interceptions in seven games played last season. Bahar also ran for 87 yards.
The Monmouth University product started for the Gamblers in a 17-15 victory over the USFL-champion Birmingham Stallions in the second-to-last game of the year, the only loss for Birmingham last season.
Also returning for the Gamblers is bruising running back Mark Thompson, who led the Gamblers last season with 463 rushing yards and two scores.
"He’s big and he can run," Johnson said about Thompson, who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds. "You definitely want to feature him, because he’s been perfect in camp. As much as we can, we want to give him the ball."
Joining Thompson in the running back room is T.J. Pledger, an explosive playmaker coming out of the backfield as a pass catcher.
Johnson says the receivers group will be the strength of the offense, led by Tyler Palka, Anthony Ratliff-Williams and vertical threat Deontez Alexander. Palka totaled 18 receptions for 188 receiving yards in 2022 for the Gamblers.
Florida product center Nick Buchanan anchors the offensive line, along with right guard Jordan Steckler.
"He’s a tremendous leader and smart beyond his years," Johnson said about Buchanan. "I like him a lot. He makes all the calls, he’s physical and he’s a great run blocker."
Defensively, the Gamblers have some playmakers to replace, with last year’s USFL Defensive Player of the Year in defensive end Chris Odom gone, along with the league’s leading tackler in linebacker Donald Payne.
Edge rusher Ronheen Bingham is expected to step up with those two no longer on the roster, along with linebackers Khalan Tolson and Isaiah Pryor. Safety Donald Rutledge Jr. and cornerback Jeremiah Johnson will control things in the secondary.
"I love Tolson, our MIKE linebacker," Johnson said. "He does everything right. He’s a thumper, he’s a hitter and he can run. He’s just a little bit undersized, but I like him."
Nick Vogel returns as Houston's kicker. The University of Alabama-Birmingham product connected on 18 of 23 fields goals last season, with a long of 53 yards, and converted 12 of 15 extra points. Vogel’s 69.5% touchback percentage on kickoffs was No. 3 in the USFL in 2022.
Punter Andrew Galitz also returns for Houston from last season.
The Gamblers scrimmaged against the Memphis Showboats and the Birmingham Stallions in the lead-up to the opening weekend and held their own, according to Johnson.
"I thought we did well," Johnson said. "I liked our team speed in both of those games. I thought our team ran well, offensively and defensively."
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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