USFL Week 1: What to expect in season-opening matchups

USFL Week 1: What to expect in season-opening matchups

Apr 14

By Eric Williams and RJ Young
FOX Sports USFL Writers

The 2023 USFL season is upon us, with all eight teams in action this weekend. 

On Saturday, the Memphis Showboats take on the Philadelphia Stars in Memphis, followed by a game in Birmingham between the defending champion Stallions and the New Jersey Generals. Then, on Sunday, the Houston Gamblers host the Michigan Panthers in Memphis, and the Pittsburgh Maulers and New Orleans Breakers meet up in Birmingham.

Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s opening season matchups, from FOX Sports football writers RJ Young and Eric Williams.

(4:30 p.m ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

Memphis Showboats: Can the defense slow down RB Matt Colburn II?

After playing 10 road games, with all USFL games taking place in Birmingham last season, Memphis Showboats head coach Todd Haley said his team will embrace their first home game when Memphis hosts the visiting Philadelphia Stars at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium on Saturday.

"I’m just really excited to be here," Haley said about playing in Memphis. "I’m excited to be part of this town. I’m really excited for Saturday. I like our players. We’ve got a great group of guys that are really into it, and really embracing being a Memphis Showboat and being a part of the city of Memphis."

A top priority for Haley’s Showboats after the opening kick will be how to contain Philadelphia running back Colburn.

The last time these two teams met, Colburn rolled up 140 rushing yards and three scores on the ground, as the Stars gained a season-high 198 rushing yards in a Week 6, 35-28 victory over Haley's squad, which was then the Tampa Bay Bandits. 

Haley’s defense allowed 122 rushing yards per contest last season. While the Showboats must figure out how to slow down talented quarterback Case Cookus and Philadelphia’s passing attack, if Memphis can’t bring down Colburn at the line of scrimmage, the Showboats might see a lot of handoffs by Cookus.

Philadelphia Stars: Will Cookus pick up where he left off in 2022?

Speaking of Cookus, the Northern Arizona product appears fully recovered from a broken ankle suffered in the fourth quarter of Philadelphia’s USFL championship loss to the Birmingham Stallions.

Cookus finished 6-3 as a starter — including the postseason — after replacing injured starter Bryan Scott. He completed 62.5% of his passes for 1,334 yards, with 12 touchdowns and five interceptions during the regular season.

Starting this season as the guy, Cookus should have an intimate knowledge of the offensive scheme overseen by head coach Bart Andrus. And Cookus has a new playmaker at his disposal in former NFL first-round selection Corey Coleman.

Add in returning receiver Jordan Suell and tight end Bug Howard, and Cookus could be in line to post big numbers in the passing game this season. 

Cookus and the Stars also did a nice job of taking care of the football in 2022, finishing with a league-best plus-8 turnover differential last season.  On the other end, Haley’s Bandits finished with a league-worst, minus-10 turnover differential and led the USFL in penalties with 73 last year.

(7:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

Will the eventual 2023 USFL champion emerge from this game?

Last season’s opener between these teams was one of the best games of the season. After losing starting quarterback Alex McGough eight offensive snaps into the season, J'Mar Smith led the Stallions to a second-half comeback win in dramatic fashion, 28-24, at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama.

As the season progressed, it became clear that the Generals and Stallions were two of the league's best teams. Both made the playoffs. One team was responsible for the USFL's Offensive Player of the Year (Generals running back Darius Victor) and MVP (former Generals wide receiver KaVontae Turpin) and the other won the 2022 championship (Stallions).

If this year’s season-opener in Birmingham can come close to the kind of exciting one we watched last year, there’s reason to believe the Stallions and Generals might meet again — perhaps in the 2023 championship game.

How much better will McGough, Smith and New Jersey QB De'Andre Johnson be in Year 2?

Generals coach Mike Riley and Stallions coach Skip Holtz are fortunate to return quarterbacks who started games for them in the regular season and playoffs. Philadelphia Stars' Bart Andrus is the only other coach who can make such a claim.

However, both needed to use more than one starting quarterback throughout the regular season — as did Andrus — and depth at quarterback is essential. It’s so essential, in fact, that the USFL has created a new rule that allows for each team to carry an inactive quarterback on its roster in case of an emergency — such as losing two QBs in the same game to injuries.

Johnson will look to solidify his position as the starter in Riley’s offense after splitting time with Luis Perez most of last year, while Holtz will almost certainly try to give both of his quarterbacks the chance to win the job outright.

Johnson accounted for over 1,000 yards of offense through the air and on the ground, contributing six total TDs and throwing just two interceptions.

Smith finished third in the league in passing yards with 1,573, with 10 total TDs and six interceptions, while McGough totaled just over 500 yards of offense but accounted for six TDs and just three interceptions.

As quarterback play goes, so does a team’s fortune in the USFL. An ability to take care of the ball will be at a premium.

Which new star emerges?

Familiar names on both sides of the ball return, but the Stallions are loaded with former national title caliber and All-American players.

Former Arizona linebacker and All-American Scooby Wright, former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, former Texas A&M tight end and All-American Jace Sternberger and former LSU tight end and national champion Thad Moss will all suit up for the Stallions on Saturday night.

(12 p.m. ET on NBC/Peacock)

Houston Gamblers: What’s the game plan for new Panthers head coach Mike Nolan?

New Gamblers head coach Curtis Johnson said the season opener is hard to prepare for, having never faced new Michigan head coach Mike Nolan’s team. That makes it hard to anticipate the new personnel and schemes he’ll face on game day.

Nolan took over the Panthers this year after Jeff Fisher stepped down as head coach this offseason.

"It’s very difficult," Johnson said. "The schedule is what it is, but they don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t know what they’re doing. I just think you have to be pretty generic in what you do. You don’t want to try all the trick stuff. Just play solid, simple football. 

"I think if you can out-execute the other team, it will tell you more about your team. So, execution is paramount in this one." 

Another concern for Johnson will be his team taking care of the football. The Gamblers gave the ball away 15 times last year.

"If we don’t turn the ball over, make mistakes and have a bunch of penalties, I think we can maintain and win some games," Johnson said. "We have a good enough offensive line that we’ll be able to run the ball and do some things, but the main thing is turnovers and penalties. That will kill us. We can’t have that." 

Michigan Panthers: Who is the long-term answer at QB? 

Josh Love returns for the Panthers this season.

The San Jose State product threw for 791 yards in the USFL last season while playing for the Pittsburgh Maulers and the Panthers, with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

However, the Panthers also brought in a new signal caller to add competition to the quarterback room in Carson Strong.

At 6-3 and 230 pounds, Strong is a big guy who can sling it. He completed 68% of his passes for 9,368 yards, with 74 touchdowns and 19 interceptions during his college career at Nevada. If Love struggles, perhaps Nolan goes to Strong early in the game.

The Panthers finished 2-8 last season and averaged 21.1 points per game, so generating some consistency on offense will be important.

Expect Michigan to also lean on running back Reggie Corbin to create some balance on offense. Corbin led Michigan in rushing with 519 yards in 2022, while Stevie Scott II added 310 yards on the ground. 

(6:30 p.m ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app)

Which quarterback makes his mark?

The Maulers endured perhaps the worst luck at quarterback last year and were unable to find a rhythm offensively, in part, due to the inconsistency they experienced at the game’s most important position.

This year, three new players have had a chance to compete for the starting gig, and James Morgan has perhaps the best chance to win the job outright. Morgan won Conference USA Newcomer of the Year at FIU after passing for 2,727 yards with 26 TDs against seven INTs in 2018. He was selected in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

On the Breakers roster, former Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass and CFL veteran McLeod Bethel-Thompson each have enough talent to win the job. Glass, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder, led the Bulldogs to their first HBCU football national title in the spring of 2021 — and first SWAC title since 2006, while Bethel-Thompson has quarterbacked two Grey Cup-winning teams (2017, 2022), and has led the CFL in passing yards (4,731) and passing TDs (23) as the starter for the Toronto Argonauts. He's thrown for 4,000 yards or more in two of his last four seasons.

How new USFL coach John DeFilippo chooses to manage his quarterbacks will be interesting to see, especially since Bethel-Thompson and DeFilippo spent training camp together in 2016 with the Philadelphia Eagles when DeFilippo was the team's quarterbacks coach.

Are the defenses still stout?

Defensive coordinator Jarren Horton turned heads last year with his ability to create one of the league’s best defenses. Now, as an assistant head coach, and working for his father, new Maulers head coach Ray Horton, he’s added former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster to a veteran group that includes linebacker Kyahva Tezino, nose tackle Boogie Roberts and safety Tre Tarpley.

Tezino recorded 56 tackles, two sacks and an INT last season.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Breakers led the league in scoring defense, allowing just 14.8 points per game while recording 10 picks and forcing nine fumbles.

Many of the players who made those plays return for them in 2023, as does defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. As I wrote earlier, Jerod Fernandez, who notched 48 tackles and two sacks in 2022, and Vontae Diggs, who had 51 tackles and an INT each buoyed a defense that should be good.

Which wide receiver unit shows out?

The Breakers return the best pair of wideouts in the South Division in former Arkansas State WR Jonathan Adams and former Ohio State pass-catcher Johnnie Dixon. The duo combined for 69 catches and 768 yards in 2022.

The Maulers will enjoy having their most productive offensive player back, wideout Tre Walker, who will be joined by returning veteran Bailey Gaither. They also hope to see an outstanding season from USFL newcomer Jalen McCleskey. McCleskey, who had stops at Oklahoma State and Tulane, recorded 2,446 yards and 21 TDs in 56 games.

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.

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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