By Carmen Vitali
FOX Sports NFL Writer
The Michigan Panthers finished third in the North last season, a campaign viewed as a disappointment more than anything.
The New Jersey Generals won the division at 9-1, the Philadelphia Stars came in second at 6-4 and the Panthers finished with a record of 2-8 — four games back from Philly. Both of the Panthers’ wins came against division opponents.
The good news for the Panthers is that they won the final game of the season against the Pittsburgh Maulers, thereby (uniquely to the USFL) winning not only the game but the right to the first overall pick in the inaugural USFL college draft. The Panthers took offensive tackle Jarrett Horst out of Michigan State — another uniquely USFL thing to do: they value offensive linemen. In fact, Michigan’s first-ever draft class included four offensive linemen out of their 10 total picks.
Perhaps the biggest change facing the Panthers as they attempt to rebound from a sub-par 2022 season will be the man in charge of fixing things, new head coach Mike Nolan. Jeff Fisher stepped down as head coach in early February, citing personal reasons, and handed the reins over to Nolan, a long-time NFL coaching veteran and defensive guru.
Nolan will have the benefit of welcoming back star linebacker Frank Ginda, who finished with the second-most tackles in the league last season with 90.
The Panthers also took a chance by adding former NFL defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche to the roster after he spent the 2022 NFL season on the training camp roster of the 49ers. But the six-year NFL veteran, a first-round draft pick of the Cardinals in 2016, was released over the weekend.
With or without Nkemdiche, the Panthers defense will expect to limit opponents more effectively in 2023 under the tutelage of Nolan. That, coupled with a balanced offense — the Panthers led the league in passing last season — should translate to a better record for the Detroit-based Panthers.
They’ll likely be taking the ball from quarterback Josh Love, who is back healthy and ready for Year 2 with the Panthers. Love threw for only 791 yards last season, and will be challenged for the starting spot by Carson Strong, who signed with the Panthers last month.
Strong was a record-breaking signal-caller in college at Nevada and was signed as an undrafted free agent to the Philadelphia Eagles in April of last year. He was released at the end of training camp and briefly signed to the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad in December. He and Love have been battling in training camp for the right to start under center for the Panthers.
Joe Walker and Ishmael Hyman, both players with multiple touchdowns last season for Michigan, will be on the receiving end of whoever is under center for the Panthers in 2023. Hyman was most recently on the training camp roster of the Green Bay Packers following his first season in the USFL in 2022. Hyman has spent time with three other NFL clubs prior to his first stint with Michigan.
The Panthers will play four-straight games in Detroit after two road games to begin the season. The Panthers open 2023 on the road in Memphis against the Houston Gamblers on Sunday.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
More on the USFL:
- USFL 2023: How to watch, team previews, best players
- The full week-by-week 2023 USFL schedule
- Five potential USFL MVP candidates to keep an eye on ahead of 2023 season
- Michigan Panthers preview: Rising defense under Mike Nolan
- Pittsburgh Maulers preview: Fresh faces and a fresh start?
- Birmingham Stallions preview: Champs look to run it back
- New Jersey Generals preview: Building on a 9-1 season
- Memphis Showboats preview: QB Brady White to steer the ship
- Houston Gamblers preview: A focus on team speed
- Philadelphia Stars preview: Championship or bust
- New Orleans Breakers preview: Back to the postseason?