USFL 2023 season preview: Stacked Birmingham Stallions seek to run it back
With both quarterbacks returning, Skip Holtz has a lot to work with as his Birmingham Stallions seek to defend their USFL crown.
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Analyst
The Birmingham Stallions return the core of their 2022 USFL championship team.
With depth and experience at quarterback with J’Mar Smith and Alex McGough both back, the Stallions are the only team in the sport that can claim continuity that dates back to last year. Skip Holtz is the only head coach in the league who will begin Week 1 with the same quarterbacks he selected in the inaugural USFL Draft.
Smith is in Year 7 of his partnership with Holtz, which dates back to Smith’s freshman year at Louisiana Tech, where he played quarterback and Holtz was head coach. In his last two years in which Smith has made starts for Holtz, the two have combined to go 21-2 across college and professional football.
Last season, Smith led the Stallions in passing with 1,573 yards and 10 touchdowns.
McGough, who was Holtz’s first pick in last year’s draft, adds not only a year of experience in the league and in Holtz’s system, but a dual-threat element. In fact, in the USFL title game, McGough played wide receiver in an emergency situation, underscoring his ability to run away from defenders.
Behind McGough and Smith, former Alabama Crimson Tide running back Bo Scarbrough returns as the man who will most likely be tasked with carrying the mail for the Stallions. A mid-season signing last year, Scarbrough fortified an otherwise shaky run game and added a leadership and championship quality Holtz could not have been more impressed with.
Scarbrough won two national titles in three seasons at Alabama. He is one of the rare players who can claim ownership of a national title and a pro football title.
At wide receiver, Marlon Williams is set up to become one of the most dominant playmakers in the USFL. After making a mark as the No. 2 target on the team last year behind USFL alumnus Victor Bolden, he’s poised to lead the Stallions’ wide receiver room. Even as the No. 2 option, Williams led the Stallions in receiving yards (474) and receiving touchdowns (four) in 2022.
As if that wasn't enough weapons, on Monday the Stallions added former LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss — the son of Randy Moss — who caught 47 passes for 570 yards as a junior with the Tigers in 2019.
While it’s clear the Stallions will have experience and playmaking options offensively, the strength of their team last year is poised to become the strength of their team this year: defense.
Stallions defensive coordinator John Chavis put together a defense that featured one of the best returning linebacking corps in the league. With former unanimous All-American linebacker Scooby Wright to command the middle of the defense, expect Chavis’ corps to retain its moniker and show a marked increase in productivity.
Wright made the game-clinching pick-six in the USFL title game, a 33-30 victory against the Philadelphia Stars last July.
USFL title game highlights
However, with DeMarquis Gates — last season's leader in tackles and sacks — having moved on to the NFL's Chicago Bears, expect safety JoJo Tillery to become a much larger presence in the defense. With an ability to play both safety positions, nickel and linebacker, Tillery recorded 56 tackles, including a sack, in 2022 — second-best on the team.
Among newcomers, former Texas A&M tight end Jace Sternberger, who earned consensus All-American honors in 2018 after catching 47 passes for 804 receiving yards, could become a top target in the passing game for the Stallions.
The Stallions were the only team in the league to play their entire 2022 regular season at home, and they’ll be asked to prove they can play true road games for the first time this season. Of course, as long as you call them "champs," the Stallions ought not to mind the challenge.
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.
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