USFL 2022: Houston Gamblers Preview

Houston Gamblers HC Kevin Sumlin
Houston Gamblers HC Kevin Sumlin
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - While the current USFL is legally distinct from the old versions (a fact their lawyers would like you to keep well in mind as litigation continues to wind its way through the court system), the fact that they're reviving old franchise names and logos demands at least a little bit of comparison. And it's fitting that the Houston Gamblers are one of the teams they could get the rights to; the league would feel a little bit wrong without the Gamblers.

There were more successful teams in the original USFL (see the Tampa Bay Bandits), and more infamous teams (see the San Antonio Gunslingers, New Jersey Generals, and Los Angeles Express), but arguably no team had a bigger impact on football as it's actually played than the Houston Gamblers. Jack Pardee, Mouse Davis, and Jim Kelly brought the run 'n' shoot offense to the professional level for the first time, before it was promptly ripped off by the Oilers, Lions, and Falcons by the time the decade was over. They set professional records for passing yards and points scored, and while the run 'n' shoot ended up not succeeding in the long term at the professional levels, it's focus on four-wide sets and option routes can be found all around the NFL to this day.

Those Gamblers were fun, exciting, and innovative. This year's Gamblers? Maybe not quite so much; they're last in the betting odds for a reason. But at least the legacy has been restored.

Houston Gamblers

Coaching Staff

Kevin Sumlin will be leading the Gamblers into action, returning to the head coaching ranks after sitting 2021 out. Before that, Sumlin had been a head coach at the college level for over a decade, leading Houston, Texas A&M, and Arizona from 2008 to 2020.

Sumlin returns to Houston, the site of his greatest successes. He went 35-17 as head coach of the Cougars, with his 2011 team finishing the season 18th in the AP polls and 19th in F+. His spread offense, with Case Keenum under center, ranked sixth in the nation in F+ that year, and Keenum set the record for most passing yards in NCAA history. Sumlin turned that achievement into a job at Texas A&M, finishing in the top 25 in each of his first two years with Johnny Manziel and setting SEC offensive records along the way; the Aggies finished first in OF+ in both 2012 and 2013. Sumlin got a huge, six-year contract out of that.

And then things soured a bit. While Texas A&M remained bowl-eligible for the rest of Sumlin's tenure, they never again had a winning record in the conference or ended the season ranked. They lost five games in each of Sumlin's last four seasons, playing in mid-tier bowls with mid-tier results and finishing with a 51-26 record during Sumlin's tenure. He was cycling through the Kyle Allens, Trevor Knights, and Kellen Monds of the world and never quite recreating his best offensive moments. Sumlin was bought out of his contract after 2017 and moved to Arizona, but the Wildcats went just 9-20 in his three years in the desert, leading to him being fired after losing to Arizona State 70-7.

In short, Sumlin at his peak was one of the top offensive minds in college football, but it has been quite some time since his peak, and he has generally needed a high-quality quarterback to make things work. In addition to Manziel and Keenum—both great college passers, NFL success not withstanding—Sumlin has coordinated for Drew Bledsoe and Drew Brees and enjoyed successful stretches with Timm Rosenbach, Jason White, and Sam Bradford. He'll need to strike some magic at the quarterback position to be competitive in the USFL this year.

Offense

First in line to be Sumlin's quarterback is Clayton Thorson, picked by the Eagles in the fifth round out of Northwestern back in 2019. Thorson is the only Big Ten quarterback to ever have 10,000 passing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns, and only Colt McCoy can match his 53 consecutive starts at quarterback in a Power 5 conference. Thorson is impressive mechanically—a very sharp throwing motion, nice footwork, sharp releases. He also ramped up quickly and kept Northwestern competitive despite not really having any NFL talent around him. He's limited, however, by poor vision and a lack of skill reading defenses. If the first option isn't there, he gets hesitant and floaty—he took 120 sacks and had 13 multi-interception games at Northwestern. When the system is ticking, he can a useful cog, but he doesn't really have the ability to make plays by himself or generate offense on his own when problems occur. Or, to quote Mike Tanier: "Thorson is the worst quarterback I have ever seen in an NFL training camp, and I saw Tim Tebow in three separate camps." Mike won't be gambling on the Gamblers, I take it.

The other option is Kenji Bahar, undrafted out of Monmouth in 2020. He has been the Ravens go-to emergency quarterback benchwarmer over the last two years to handle COVID- and injury-related problems, and goodness knows they have had plenty of those. The 2019 Big South Offensive Player of the Year is an interesting fit for Sumlin's offense—the coach tends to prefer pure pocket passers, while Bahar is more of an all-around athlete type. Just from the sort of quarterback Sumlin prefers, you would assume Thorson gets the first nod under center, though I'd be more interested in seeing what his offense would look like with Bahar.

Sumlin's spread offense asks for four receivers on the field at basically all times, so we'd best start there for the Gamblers. There's ex-Hawaii receiver JoJo Ward, who ran a 4.42s 40-yard dash and has a very good catch radius, once you account for the fact that he's only 5-foot-9—so, not really an NFL-caliber player just from a sheer physical standpoint, but with enough speed to be a productive deep threat at college and, presumably, in the USFL as well. Isaiah Zuber appeared in four games with the Patriots in 2020, catching a couple of passes and picking up two first downs on two carries; he also led the Big 12 in punt return average while he was in college. Then there's Teo Redding, who played a little with the XFL's New York Guardians and the CFL's Montreal Alouettes; he was taken in the supplemental draft and is another undersized athletic type. Any two of those three could take the slot roles. The outside receivers are a little tougher to pin down, with Georgia's Tyler Simmons and North Carolina's Anthony Ratliff-Williams being the leaders in the clubhouse.

The lead running back is likely to be Dalyn Dawkins, who spent 2018 and 2019 bouncing up and down from the Titans' practice squad. The Gamblers are listing him as an RB/FB rather than a pure rusher, and he had some decent receiving numbers at Colorado State too, so there's some intrigue there. At 183 pounds, he's not much of a traditional fullback, so that may be why the Gamblers also added 235-pound Mark Thompson for more oomph in the backfield.

Five more players on the Gamblers offense come from the XFL: tight ends Brandon Barnes and Julien Allen, and linemen Avery Gennesy, John Yarbrough, and Terrone Prescod. Altogether, the Gamblers have 13 former XFL players and seven former AAF players, among the most in the league in both categories.

Defense

The Gamblers got the first pick during the inside linebacker portion of the draft, which is unfortunate; other than maybe defensive tackle, that's going to be the least splashy place to get the top prospect. That being said, they got a good one in Beniquez Brown, a sideline-to-sideline player who showed up well for both the AAF's Birmingham Iron and the XFL's Houston Roughnecks (it's fitting he's on a Houston team playing in Birmingham). Joining him in the linebacker corps will be Donald Payne, who spent three years with the Jaguars, starting five games and racking up 61 tackles in 2019. And there's also Azeem Victor, drafted by the Raiders in 2018 but suspended twice for violating the league's substance abuse policy, which itself came after being suspended by Washington for a DUI charge; he has always had talent, but has never been able to show it for obvious reasons.

The Gamblers' edge rushers are Ahmad Gooden and Chris Odom, both of whom have seen some NFL action. Odom has had the more success of the two, playing in 11 games for the Packers and Football Team with a successful AAF stint in between. Gooden has eschewed the spring leagues until now, mostly spending time bouncing around the Broncos, Jets, and Bills practice squads. The line also includes Krijstjan Sokoli, who played for the Seahawks and Colts in 2015 and 2016. I mostly point him out so I can say he spent 2021 with the Potsdam Royals in the German Football League, the strongest professional league in Europe. The Royals handled the Munich Cowboys in the GFL's quarterfinals, but fell to the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns in the semis. I believe Sokoli is the only player making the trek from Europe to the USFL this season.

Jamar Summers should be the Gamblers' top cornerback; he's another AAF and XFL veteran. With the Birmingham Iron, he was one off the AAF lead with three interceptions and in second place with 10 passes defensed. The other cornerback will likely be William Likely, who holds a bunch of records at Maryland for return yards in terms of interceptions, kickoffs and punts. He has spent some time in the CFL, but was last seen getting cut from the XFL's . Howard Wilson is another interesting name to watch at cornerback. He was a fourth-round pick for the Browns in 2017, but never got into a game—he fractured his patella on the second day of rookie minicamp, costing him his rookie season. And then he missed his second season after surgery on his patellar tendon, which never healed up quite right. The former Houston player gets a new chance with the Gamblers.

Despite Sumlin's pedigree, the Gamblers look better set on defense than offense—more experience, more promising players, more players with prototypical size. I am skeptical that either Thorson or Bahar will be able to run Sumlin's spread at a solid enough level to compete with the rest of the teams in the USFL's South Division. That being said, maybe Sumlin does find a time machine back to the early 2010s. If so, maybe the trip to the USFL Championship Game in Canton will include a ride on the swagcopter.

USFL Newsbreak: Coaching Staffs

Up until now, large parts of the USFL's coaching staffs have remained somewhat mysterious. While some teams trotted out their full roster of assistant coaches months ago, more than half of the league hadn't announced a single member of staff beyond the head coach. That has changed now, as this last week saw the USFL roll out their full coaching staffs, some of whom are more notable than others. At the very least, teams are beginning to feel more like football teams now, which is important because training camps opened on Monday!

Here are the full staffs:

USFL 2022 Coaching Staffs
Team Head Coach Off Coordinator Def Coordinator
Michigan Panthers Jeff Fisher Eric Marty Daniel Carrel
New Orleans Breakers Larry Fedora Noel Mazzone Jon Tenuta
Tampa Bay Bandits Todd Haley Bob Saunders Pepper Johnson
Philadelphia Stars Bart Andrus Bart Andrus Brad Miller
Pittsburgh Maulers Kirby Wilson John Tomlinson Jarren Horton
Houston Gamblers Kevin Sumlin Kevin Sumlin Tim Lewis
New Jersey Generals Mike Riley Steven Smith Cris Dishman
Birmingham Stallions Skip Holtz Skip Holtz John Chavis

Comments

4 comments, Last at 23 Mar 2022, 5:03pm

2 There's ex-Hawaii receiver…

There's ex-Hawaii receiver JoJo Ward, who ran a 4.42s 40-yard dash and has a very good catch radius, once you account for the fact that he's only 5-foot-9—so, not really an NFL-caliber player just from a sheer physical standpoint

That's not a huge downgrade from Tyreek Hill (5'10", 4.29), who just got a huge payday.

3 What sort of guys are…

What sort of guys are starters in the CFL?

I strongly get the sense that the tiers are NFL-CFL-USFL/XFL(1/2/3), with the spring teams being roughly practice-squad good, and the CFL being somewhere around 3rd-string good.