USFL 2022: Birmingham Stallions Preview
USFL - We finish our team-by-team USFL previews with the home team, or as much of one that can exist when the entire season is taking place in one city. The Birmingham Stallions, No. 8 on your betting sheet, but No. 1 in the hearts of the home fans. Presumably.
The Stallions are interesting as being the team with the most turmoil to this point in the USFL's short history. When coaching assignments were first being formalized, news broke that the Stallions would be led by Gene Chizik, with the former Auburn skipper returning to the head coaching ranks for the first time since 2012. But Chizik hadn't yet agreed to actually take the reins, and instead ended up joining North Carolina as their assistant head coach for defense. So while the Stallions technically haven't had two head coaches yet, they're the only team that publicly is down to their second choice.
Never you mind, though, because the Stallions may have the firepower to outperform their +750 championship odds, worst in the league. They look fairly stacked at the skill positions on offense and very solid on the boundaries on defense. They also boast 16 players who spent time on NFL rosters in 2021, most in the league. As for the offensive and defensive lines, on the other hand … well, they look fairly stacked at the skill positions and on the boundaries!
The Stallions eventually settled on Skip Holtz as their head coach. Holtz has a long track record as a head coach on the collegiate level, with a 152-121 record over 22 years at Connecticut, East Carolina, South Florida, and Louisiana Tech. He has taken his teams to 12 bowl games as well as the Division I-AA quarterfinals, and he was the 2016 C-USA coach of the year. He has a reputation for turning bad programs around quickly—he was the first UConn coach to reach the I-AA playoffs; he took an East Carolina program that hadn't had a winning season in five years to a bowl game in Years 2 through 5 of his tenure; and he went to more bowl games at Louisiana Tech than all other coaches in program history combined.
Then again, he's the only one of the primarily college coaches in the USFL to have never finished a season in the top 25; Kevin Sumlin, Larry Fedora, and Mike Riley all can point to seasons where they were at least somewhat relevant nationally, while Holtz just has five Conference USA titles to his name. Only one of Holtz's teams have finished in the top 50 in F+: a rather fluky 2011 South Florida team that finished 5-7. His Louisiana Tech teams frequently failed to crack the top 100; going 3-9 in Conference USA will do that for you. He's a solid enough coach and helped his father coordinate some very strong offenses at Notre Dame, but he does seem to be a rung down from the other coaches the USFL was able to grab.
We may have a quarterback battle in Birmingham. The Stallions' first pick at the position was Alex McGough, who was drafted in the seventh round in 2018 out of Florida International; he clashed with Holtz a few times in Conference USA. McGough has very solid athletic ability and a killer arm, flashing both power and touch at times. He also has shown significant mobility when flushed out of the pocket, running the read-option at times at FIU. These traits led the Seahawks to pick him as their first quarterback drafted since Russell Wilson. He had some struggles grasping the playbook in Seattle and couldn't quite crack the roster, though he did end up dressing for a couple of games with the Texans in 2019. He has been on the practice squad circuit ever since.
But the Stallions also drafted J'Mar Smith, whom Holtz coached for four years at Louisiana Tech. Smith was the 2019 C-USA player of the year in Holtz's offense, which you would think would give him a leg up in the competition. Plus, he's a bit more of a running quarterback than McGough is; he had at least 90 carries in each of his three seasons as a starter. You would think in a league that's coming together fairly quickly that Smith would have a significant advantage in any quarterback competition. You have to wonder if McGough went over Smith because the USFL had their top eight quarterback prospects in one place for publicity photos, and Holtz actually wanted Smith all along. At the very least, Smith is the most likely second-picked quarterback to win a starting job this year.
The Stallions got first pick at wide receiver in the draft and took Victor Bolden. Bolden made the 49ers in 2017 despite going undrafted, and while he never did much as a receiver, he was a decently effective kick returner first for San Francisco and later Buffalo; he spent the last three years bouncing on and off the Detroit practice squad. But "2021 practice squadder" describes most of the Stallions' receivers. Emmanuel Hall was second-team All-SEC in 2018 at Missouri; he was on Washington's practice squad last year and will be the Stallions' deep threat. Osirus Mitchell went undrafted out of Mississippi State last year and spent the season on the Cowboys' practice squad; at 6-foot-5, he's their big-bodied red zone target. Manasseh Bailey runs a 4.39s 40; he spent 2021 on the Jets' practice squad and should be one of Birmingham's slot receivers. That's a lot of NFL coaching for this receiving corps, but not a lot of actual professional game action on any level.
In fact, you can extend that to the other skill positions as well – running backs Tony Brooks-James, C.J. Marable, Bobby Holly, and Jordan Chunn were all in NFL camps last season, as were tight ends Cary Angeline and Sage Surratt. Every USFL team has at least a handful of those guys—players who made the top 80 or top 60 on an NFL team but not the final roster. But most teams supplement them with people who have had recent in-game experience, be in the CFL or the XFL or the AAF or even the Spring League. All of the Stallions' skill position players have enough potential and promise that the NFL has kept them hanging around, but none have seen any significant action in quite some time.
The offensive line is somewhat less promising, though I have to point out tackle Justice Powers as having the best name in the league. Center Jordan McCray is the greybeard on offense, going undrafted out of UCF in 2014. He has been on four different NFL practice squads, as well four different Arena League teams with stints in the AAF and XFL. That makes him the only one of the Stallions' linemen to have played a meaningful game since college. Holtz did grab O'Shea Dugas, another Louisiana Tech alumni, to play tackle; Dugas spent some time with the Bengals but was hampered by injuries. Powers, Darius Harper, and Cameron Hunt have also spent time in NFL camps.
Birmingham's first corner taken was Brian Allen, a fifth-round pick by the Steelers back in 2017 who played 20 games in the NFL. He only had 24 snaps on defense, all with the 49ers in one game against the Dolphins back in 2020. He was targeted six times, giving up five completions for 124 yards and a touchdown, and was benched at halftime after allowing a perfect passer rating. He is, at least, very fast and very tall. He'll likely pair with Tae Haynes, who appeared for six games with Jacksonville, Miami, and Minnesota between 2019 and 2020. He had 137 NFL defensive snaps for the FishTank Dolphins, so he's technically the more experienced of the two. The Stallions also have former All-MEAC corner Bryan Mills, who went undrafted out of North Carolina Central last season but ended up playing one (1) snap of special teams for the Vikings in Week 18.
And then, in the supplemental draft, the Stallions took Josh Shaw. Shaw started 14 games for the Bengals between 2015 and 2017 and has over 1,200 defensive snaps to his name in the pros. However, Shaw is also an alumnus of the Keep Choppin' Wood team. He was suspended for the 2020 season after betting against his own Cardinals team and hasn't played in the NFL since. The USFL would like to remind you that the league has been approved for sports wagering in 15 states!
There are a few other Stallions defenders with NFL game experience. Linebacker Scooby Wright played 13 games for the Cardinals in 2016 and 2017; he's also a former Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik award winner at Arizona as the best defender in college football. That level of play never really materialized in the NFL. He has had some success in the other minor leagues, however, playing for both the AAF's Hotshots and the XFLs Defenders. Then there's Jonathan Newsome, a fifth-round pick from the Colts all the way back in 2014. He recorded 7.5 sacks for Indianapolis in a two-year career but was released after being arrested for marijuana possession. He then had some success in the CFL for the Roughriders, Redblacks, and Lions, picking up 11 more sacks in four years. He retired from professional football last March, but he's back at age 31 to give US football one more shot. Finally, there's Aaron Adeoye. He went undrafted in 2016 and then worked his way slowly up the ranks, from the minor indoor leagues to the Spring League to the AAF's Birmingham Iron. His performance there got him a job with the Ravens as a practice squad player who occasionally bounced up to the main roster, and now he's back in Birmingham, looking to stand out enough for another team to take a shot at him.
More than any other team, the Stallions valued NFL experience when putting their roster together. It's a little odd that that decision is coming from a college coach like Holtz and not one of the pro coaches! The defense is more experienced on the whole than the offense is; they have some real talent on the edges and in the secondary. If the offense can do its part, and the unheralded-even-for-the-USFL offensive line can hold up, then the Stallions might surprise people this season.