By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports USFL Writer
For those who may not remember Wright, the University of Arizona product picked off Philadelphia Stars quarterback K.J. Costello and returned the interception 47 yards for a score, sealing Birmingham's 33-30 victory in the league's championship game.
Of course, "Shark-Dog" is Wright's spirit animal, a combination of his two favorite animals. The energetic linebacker finished with 52 combined tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and three pass breakups in seven games during the regular season.
"Man, I'm just grateful to Birmingham fans," Wright said after his team's big victory. "They digged it. They loved it. They went with it and ran with it. And I'm just thankful we got here as a team, and we were able to bring it home."
Wright missed three games due to a calf injury but shined when it mattered most in the playoffs.
Last year's USFL Defensive Player of the Year was Chris Odom, who led the league with 12.5 sacks and helped the Houston Gamblers score a league-leading five defensive touchdowns.
Wright's teammate, pass rusher DeMarquis Gates was third in the USFL last year with 6.5 sacks, along with 61 combined tackles. But with both Odom and Gates signing with the NFL last year, Wright leads a wide-open race for this year's Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Here are five other defensive players of the year candidates to watch for this season:
Philadelphia Stars CB Channing Stribling
The cerebral defensive back played with great anticipation last year, leading the USFL with seven interceptions. Stribling also totaled 16 tackles, including two tackles for a loss, a sack and 11 pass breakups.
Stribling's effort helped him earn a training camp invitation to the Washington Commanders, where he was one of the final roster cuts before the start of the regular season. At 6-2 and 191 pounds, Stribling made the USFL All-Defensive Team in 2022. Also returning for the Stars is Adam Rodriguez, the USFL's second-leading sack guy with nine.
The hard-hitting safety led the Generals with five interceptions, second in the USFL behind Stribling. An All-USFL defensive selection, the Washington State product also totaled 31 combined tackles and nine pass breakups in leading New Jersey's defense.
Luani helped the Generals hold opponents to 18.2 points per contest in 2022, as New Jersey finished 9-1 during the regular season. New Jersey also should be strong up front, with defensive linemen Toby Johnson and Hercules Mata'afa returning.
The San Jose State product finished second in the USFL last season with 90 combined tackles. Ginda anchors the defense for new Michigan head coach and longtime NFL defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
The athletic defensive lineman led the Breakers last season with five sacks, earning a spot on the All-USFL defensive team. New Orleans held opposing offenses to a league-low 14.8 points per game.
Howard is joined by the team's leading tackler last season in linebacker Jerod Fernandez returning to New Orleans, along with edge rusher Jordan Brailford and safety Greg Eisworth II.
Pittsburgh Maulers LB Reuben Foster
A former NFL first-round selection, Foster joins the Maulers with the hopes of showing he's healthy enough to return to the league.
At 6-1 and 228 pounds, Foster finished with 102 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss, in 16 NFL games before washing out of the league due to a lingering knee injury and off-the-field issues. Foster has not played consistently in five years, but perhaps first-year Maulers head coach Ray Horton can get Foster to reach his potential in the USFL's latest reclamation project.
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.
More on the USFL:
- Five potential USFL MVP candidates to keep an eye on ahead of 2023 season
- 2023 USFL Draft: 80 players selected across 10 rounds
- The full week-by-week 2023 USFL schedule
- Michigan Panthers schedule | Interview with coach Mike Nolan
- Pittsburgh Maulers schedule | Interview with coach Ray Horton
- Birmingham Stallions schedule | Interview with coach Skip Holtz
- New Jersey Generals schedule | Interview with coach Mike Riley
- Memphis Showboards schedule | Interview with coach Todd Haley
- Houston Gamblers schedule | Interview with coach Curtis Johnson
- Philadelphia Stars schedule | Interview with coach Bart Andrus
- New Orleans Breakers schedule | Interview with coach John DeFilippo
- 2023 USFL schedule: Best early games, title odds and more!