USFL 2022: Philadelphia Stars Preview

Philadelphia Stars DL Freedom Akinmoladun
Philadelphia Stars DL Freedom Akinmoladun
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

USFL - Our USFL team previews push on, as the season (and court dates) draw ever nearer. Last week, we covered the early preseason favorites: the Michigan Panthers and the Tampa Bay Bandits. Today, we're covering the Panthers' toughest challengers in the North: the Philadelphia Stars. There's also news below about the USFL supplemental draft.

Philadelphia Stars

Coaching Staff

Two of the eight USFL teams have ex-NFL head coaches. Four more have ex-NCAA Division I head coaches. One has a long-time NFL position coach. And then you have the Stars, led by minor league veteran Bart Andrus.

Andrus has been around everywhere and done a little bit of everything. He started coaching in the 1980s, first as a head coach at the high school level, and then as an offensive coordinator for Humboldt State, Montana State, and Southern Utah from 1986 to 1995. Despite limited success for those teams, Andrus got named head coach for Rocky Mountain in the NAIA. Andrus led the Battlin' Bears to a 6-4 record with the first-ranked offense in the association—impressive, considering Rocky Mountain hadn't won a game for four years prior, and earning him Coach of the Year honors. That brought Andrus to the attention of Jeff Fisher, who brought him to the Tennessee Oilers staff, first as a quality control coach and then with a promotion to quarterbacks coach, working with Steve McNair as the Titans reached Super Bowl XXXIV.

And then Andrus became a coveted head coach everywhere but the NFL. He coached the NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals from 2001 to 2007, winning World Bowl XIII and his second Coach of the Year award. He spent one year as the head coach of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts (which went terribly; 3-15 with a staff filled with Americans with little experience with the nuances of the Canadian game) and has spent the past decade racking up jobs all over the map. The UFL's Omaha Nighthawks (2-2 before that league folded), Feather River Community College (2-8), the XFL's Team 9 (the farm team/practice squad for the other eight teams), and both the West and Austin/TSL Generals in The Spring League (11-2 over four years, including winning the 2020 championship game).

It's that Spring League connection that explains why Andrus hooked up with Brian Woods and the new USFL, although it doesn't explain why he's now coaching the Stars and not the Generals. It also really explains why he's here. Why is Jeff Fisher or Todd Haley coaching in a spring football league? Maybe they see it as a path back to the NFL, maybe they just wanted to get out of the house, maybe they wanted a quick paycheck to do something they enjoyed doing. Bart Andrus is coaching a minor league football team because he is a minor league football coach. He's also one of the coaches taking this very seriously—while Fisher and Haley have yet to announce literally anyone on their coaching staff, Andrus unveiled his full staff on January 28, weeks before the draft was held and before any other team had hired anyone else. He and his team went to work in the draft … and basically just drafted Andrus' Spring League team whenever possible, keeping a sense of continuity even as the league transitions into something larger.

It's that level of continuity and professionalism that has me fancying the Stars—they are, in large parts, the defending champions for a league that has never existed. Sure, the influx of talent that comes with Fox Sports money might be enough to blow the ex-Generals out of the water, but I actually like Andrus and company to show his old boss Fisher and the Michigan Panthers a thing or two about how to play football in the spring.

Offense

The Stars' top quarterback is Bryan Scott, undrafted out of Occidental in 2017 after setting basically every passing record in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He has had tryouts for a number of NFL teams and spent time on the practice squads of some CFL teams, but the important thing for our purposes is that he may well be the best player in the history of the Spring League. Together with Andrus, Scott was league MVP twice, and was the MVP of the championship game in 2020. He's the only player in league history to throw for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in a season, which is impressive when you remember TSL seasons were, at most, four games long. He beat out guys you may have heard of, including Zach Mettenberger, on his way to putting up these numbers, so it's not like he's nobody from nowhere. As for what type of player he is? Scott earned the nickname "The Aaron Rodgers of DIII" in college thanks to a quick release, top-tier accuracy (for DIII, at any rate), and composure in the pocket. No word as of this point what his stance on Panchakarma cleanses is. Andrus keeps talking Scott up—this is the second time he has used his first draft pick on him, after all—and Scott has played well enough for both Sean McVay and Andy Reid to bring him in to camp to take a look-see. It's his lack of arm strength more than anything else that has kept him in the minor leagues, but he has had tremendous success at this level.

The other passer is Case Cookus, another ex-General, if only for a cup of coffee—he left Andrus' 2021 team after two weeks to sign with the Denver Broncos but was cut after three days in Mile High. Cookus was undrafted out of Northern Arizona in 2020. He's got a stronger arm than Scott, but that's about it. He spent nearly all of training camp with the Giants that year, but of course that was the year without a preseason, so we never got to see him take an NFL field. Cookus was a backup for Andrus' 2021 team and he'll be a backup here as well, but at least he knows Andrus' system.

Scott and Cookus aren't the only ex-Generals to suit up on offense. Andrus also brought in running back Darnell Holland, wide receivers Jordan Suell and Devin Gray, offensive tackle Blake Camper, and offensive guard Jackson Brown, Generals all. That means the Stars' starting offensive lineup has more experience working together and with their offense than any other team in the league, which has to be a significant advantage as everyone else starts up from scratch. Maybe, on paper, the roster doesn't have the same pedigree as some of the other teams out there; there are no Paxton Lynches or Eli Rogerses out there with significant NFL credentials to their names. But that continuity should be huge for the Stars, especially early on in the season.

There are a couple of non-Generals worth highlighting on offense. Andrus runs a three-receiver set most of the time, and they just added Chris Rowland in the USFL's supplemental draft. Rowland is a converted running back who spent time with the Falcons in 2020 as a COVID callup. He's really more of an all-purpose guy; he was the All-Ohio Valley first-team returner in 2019, returning both a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown alongside receiving and passing touchdowns. Rowland impressed in preseason with the Falcons last year but didn't quite make the final cut. He projects as a speedy gadget player; just try to ignore the fact he's 5-foot-8. There's also tight end Bug Howard, who was a top-20 receiver in the AAF with the Atlanta Legends and has spun that into some preseason and practice squad time ever since.

Defense

As far as I am aware, there is only one ex-Generals player on the Stars defense: edge rusher Carroll Phillips. Phillips has been on the periphery of the NFL for a while, appearing in 11 games for Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Washington as a special teams player from 2017 to 2019; Matt Eberflus singled him out for his hustle after a two-sack performance in the 2019 preseason. Phillips hasn't gotten back to the league in the past few seasons, but he reentered competitive football with the Generals in 2021 and performed well.

While he's the only General here, he's not the only player with actual NFL experience. Defensive lineman Freedom Akinmoladun was the Stars' first defensive pick; he was a four-year starter at Nebraska who ended up playing four games for the Bengals and Jets over the last three seasons. Cornerback Mazzi Wilkins has been with the Buccaneers and Ravens the last three seasons, with a Spring League stint of his own in between. Finally, the Stars picked up safety Ahmad Dixon in the supplemental draft—he appeared in games for the Bears, Dolphins, and Vikings, all in 2014. Since then, he has played for Edmonton in the CFL, the Los Angeles Wildcats in the XFL, and the Massachusetts Pirates of the Indoor Football League.

The experience trend continues even once you get away from the NFL players. The top corner the Stars drafted was Channing Stribling, who went undrafted in 2017, bounced around NFL practice squads for a while, and since then has started for the AAF's Memphis Express, the XFL's Seattle Dragons, and the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Interestingly, this is the second time Andrus has drafted him, but Stribling never played for Andrus' Generals—the Tiger-Cats wanted him back after the the 2020 CFL season was cancelled and his contract expired. Other spring football veterans include cornerback Bradley Slye, who scored the first defensive touchdown in XFL history, and safety Jack Tocho, who spent time with the AAF's Birmingham Iron and the XFL's Los Angeles Wildcats.

You get the picture. Andrus and his team have prioritized guys they have seen and coached in their extensive history in the minor leagues, bringing back as much of their 2020 championship team as they could find and supplementing them with a deep roster of XFL, AAF, and CFL guys. On paper, this is the least acclaimed team in the league, but they also may be the best prepared to play minor league football. Coaching players at this level is different from coaching NFL players or FBS players, and skills at one level don't always transfer to another; we saw just this last season how Urban Meyer struck out trying to go from the college ranks to the pro ranks. I really do think that Andrus' years of experience at this level will be a major boon to the Stars, and the fact that they brought in so many players who have played together and in this offense before is going to give them a significant boost right out of the starting gate. I think they're going to enter the Week 4 matchup against Jeff Fisher's Panthers at 3-0, and the matchup of coach-versus-assistant will determine the lead in the North.

I just wish I could understand why they're not the Generals.

Newsbreak: Supplemental Draft Edition

As alluded to up above, the USFL held a supplemental draft on March 10 to finish filling out rosters. There are a couple reasons why they didn't just draft a few more rounds back in the primary draft. Firstly, the initial draft went position by position, so some teams just didn't get a crack at, say, a top quarterback or edge rusher or what have you. The supplemental draft had no positional restrictions so teams could take whoever they liked. The Generals, for instance, used three of their first four supplemental picks in the secondary, so you have an idea how they viewed their initial draft. In addition, the USFL does not let you draft someone who doesn't already have a contract with the USFL—and those contracts include clauses that say you can't jump to the XFL next season. So some players were hesitant about signing up but have weighed their options and have since agreed to join the league.

Former Mississippi tight end Justin Johnson went first overall to the Breakers. Six-year NFL veteran Ethan Westbrooks followed him, as did other former NFL players such as Tyshun Render, Quinton Meeks, Kristjan Sokoli, Marcus Baugh, and T.J. Logan. We'll get to any significant ones as their team previews pop up.

What's also notable about the supplemental draft, however, is some of the players who weren't selected. The 2021 Spring League's top passer was Brandon Silvers, and he reportedly was interested in playing in the USFL and had heard from multiple teams that they were interested in picking him up. He was not drafted. Nor was fellow spring league (and Spring League) vet Luis Perez, or former Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant, the 2017 ACC Championship Game MVP and an active member of the Toronto Argonauts.

It's not just passers being passed on, either. Running back Dontez Byrd, receiver Rashad Ross, cornerback Charles James—there are a lot of players who absolutely have the talent to play at this level and were prominently part of offseason football the last couple years who were conspicuously missing from both the standard and supplemental drafts. While it's possible that some of them are just done with their careers and others didn't catch the eye of any of the USFL's teams, it's also possible that some of them are choosing to wait this one out, spending the 2022 season with the CFL or indoor football league or one of the other myriad options out there and are waiting for the XFL's re-re-debut in 2023. We don't know what the case is, as the USFL does not release lists of which players are eligible to be drafted. The USFL-XFL rivalry is something to watch for going forward.

Maybe we'll get more clarity on March 19 and 20, when the USFL will hold a combine. Yes, they're holding their combine after both the regular and supplemental drafts; it's really more of a tryout for free agents who went undrafted than anything else. If some of these names show up there, we'll know that they were just passed over for whatever reason. If they don't, well, maybe they are smelling what The Rock is cooking.

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