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Previewing the USFL Season Opener Philadelphia Stars Versus Memphis Showboats

The Stars head into week one against the Memphis Showboats…that inexplicably have a dog as a mascot…but that’s a story for another day. It’s slightly ironic that the Showboats were relocated, and rebranded because they’re a completely different team from last season.  

The Showboats no longer have Jordan Ta’amu who, has looked much better in the XFL with DC by the way, and are moving forward with Memphis’s own Brady White. White would graduate from Memphis, playing from 2018-2020 with the team. Playing in 39 games for the school, he looked like a competent quarterback. He passed for 10,690 yards, 90 TDs to 30 INTs, with 7 rushing touchdowns. During the stretch he earned a long list of awards, and engrained himself in the minds of Memphis fans. 

It’s a good thing that they didn’t have to see his performance for the Tampa Bay Bandits last season during which he managed just 7 completions on 17 attempts, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception. Hopefully for his sake given an offseason of training to be the starter, staying in the same offense with primarily the same coaching staff allowed him to continue building on last season. White gets the start in the home opener, playing in front of Memphis fans at the same stadium he called home for three seasons not long ago. 

I mention this because Memphis has a long history of supporting alternative football. Dating back to 1974 Memphis has hosted alternative football off and on for nearly 50 years. This includes the World Football League, original USFL, CFL, XFL, AAF, and now the USFL once again. 

I expect home field advantage to be in full effect this weekend when these teams face off. During the AAF’s season the Memphis Express averaged 12,944 fans per game. They also started four different quarterbacks, none of which played at Memphis. If reports from the league are true we could see over 25,000 fans show up to Saturday’s season opener. This could prove to be the best home field advantage in the USFL if White plays well this season.

According to the odds for this game are set at Stars -2.5 points. Which is right in line with my prediction at the end of this article. The Stars have a more well rounded roster, with many more experienced alternative football league players which should bode well for their success this season much like it did in 2022. If the Stars are able to get on an early season roll, we could see them go on a run as the coaches have discussed at length they want to adjust as they go.

Looking at the injury reports both teams could be missing players:

If Memphis comes into this game without Josh Nurse, Jermaine Kelly, and/or Delrick Abrams  they’re already pretty well handicapped against this team. The Stars have no shortage of talent at wideout and like to spread the ball around if last season is any indication. They look to be in better shape than the Showboats with most players likely to play. Tight End in particular could get interesting with Bug Howard out more on that in a moment. 

If we are looking at these two rosters objectively they are actually fairly well matched. 

Quarterback: Even 

At Quarterback the Stars walk into this game with Case Cookus, Kevin Thomson, and Vad Lee as their QB room. Cookus was one of the better quarterbacks in the league last season, Thomson was showing promise in the CFL before an injury, and Vad Lee finished last season as the Maulers leading passer but now looks like he might be the third quarterback with the Stars. 

Memphis has Brady White, Ryan Willis, and Cole Kelley. All three of these quarterbacks are capable of starting so I don’t expect a long leash for White if he struggles, and I would argue White isn’t the best player at the position on the roster. He was likely chosen due to the location of the hub, and his time in the system last season. You have to wonder what is going through Ryan Willis’s mind right now. 

Running Back: Even 

Stars have Matt Colburn, Dexter Williams, and Darnell Holland (injured reserve). All three of which are dangerous backs, that are also valuable in the passing game. Colburn had an impressive stretch last season of scoring in consecutive games and I expect him to be first off the bench. Williams will likely be 1b in this rotation with Holland as the change of pace and 3rd down back when healthy. In his absence we could see more jet sweeps, and creativity in the run game utilizing the backgrounds of Corey Coleman and Chris Rowland as runners. 

Showboats have Alex Collins, David Hamm, and Justin Stockton. All three of these players are solid backs. Stockton, and Hamm have experience playing alternative football, while Collins is getting his first taste. Collins could be a break out back this season, but I expect all three to be involved. This is a dramatically improved unit over last season when they were easily the worst backfield in the league. 

Wide Receiver: Stars

The Stars last season had four receivers catch 20 or more passes. Two of those players were signed by NFL teams but only one returned. However I’m very confident in Diondre Overton who appears to be the next man up in the lineup, as well as Samuel Akem a premier receiver from Montana, Terry Wright an alternative league veteran, and Keric Wheatfall another interesting prospect. 

Meanwhile, last season the Bandits as they were known didn’t seem to have many elite weapons. In fact only two players caught more than 19 passes. That isn’t to say this group is without talent. In fact Derrick Dillon is one of the better receivers in the league but as a position group I have to give it to the Stars for overall depth. 

Tight End: Leaning Memphis  

The Stars have four tight ends listed on their roster two of which were with the team last season in Bug Howard (reserve list), and Pro Wells (Probable), as well as two new comers Ryan Izzo (Probable) and Larry Dalla Betta. With two players who are relative unknowns on how limited they will be atop the depth chart, and the best tight end in the league on reserve I’m not sure what to expect from the Stars here. 

Showboats have Daniel Helm, and Jay Jay Wilson. They also have Corbin Kaufusi who caught a pass last season and could get looks on run downs. The reason I like the depth chart with the Showboats more currently is they’re all healthy, and they seem to compliment each other. Daniel Helm, has bounced around to six different NFL teams in three years, but never played much. Jay Jay Wilson played, but at a lower level in the Indoor Football League. Wilson is more of a move tight end who can create mismatches and actually has seen time at wide receiver and fullback. Helm is your prototypical tight end, who is solid as a blocker with room to grow, he’s also a decent athlete although his combine numbers won’t blow you away, nor will his college production. As a unit I expect these two, and their larger counterpart who moonlights as an offensive lineman could end up as one of the better groups in the league. 

Offensive Line: Stars

The Stars had one of the better offensive lines in 2022. I expect that to continue in 2023. They brought back several key members of the unit, and managed to also bring in a few new players who should be valuable pieces even if just as depth. 

With the Showboats, they gave up 29 sacks in 10 games, and helped contribute to a run game that produced just 573 yards when you remove Ta’amu’s rushing stats. No offense can sustain a passing game when you’re averaging 57 yards per game rushing, and 4 touchdowns. The team ran the ball 270 times in 2022 showing a willingness, but a lack of execution. Their only additions could be a mixed bag. 

Defensive Line: Even 

The Stars made more moves on their defensive line than anywhere else on the team. Bringing in Carson Taylor, Ali Fayad, Darius Hodge, they also released Tony Fair, and Antwan Owens. I like the players they brought in, but I wonder if defensive tackle isn’t a weakness currently. They needed to shore up their run defense, but didn’t make a ton of moves at defensive tackle. It will be interesting to see how the moves the Stars made pan out. 

Showboats have mammoth defensive tackles, with Viane Moala 6’6 305 lbs, Daylon Mack 6’1  340 lbs, and John Atkins at 6’3 320 lbs. but they also have positional versatility in a couple guys I expect to kick inside to rush the passer when needed. Dillon Faamatau at 6’3 285 lbs listed as a defensive tackle, as well as defensive ends Jordan Williams 6’5 285 lbs, and Jeremiah Valoaga at 6’6 275 lbs. This should in theory set them up to be a solid run defense, but they didn’t stop at that. 

They also have pass rushers Big Kat Bryant, Kahzin Daniels, and Jeff McCulloch. All three of these guys stand 245 pounds or less, and all three have a background that is conducive to collecting sacks. McCulloch is the only player at defensive end to log a statistic in 2022 with the Bandits. Collecting 5.5 total tackles, and 1 sack. Big Kat Bryant is a hybrid who can stand up and play linebacker, or rush the passer full time. His best season came in 2021 at defensive end with UCF where he had 6 sacks. Kahzin Daniels spent some time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in college Daniels was a monster racking up 44 tackles for a loss, and 25 sacks. He managed two years with 9.5 sacks or more. This unit could be solid if they’re able to gel and be used as a rotation situationally. 

Linebacker: Showboats

The Stars lost Jordan Moore to suspension early this offseason. That’s s huge blow to this defense even with the moves they have made to shore up their linebacking group. With Te’Von Coney, and Gabriel Sewell returning, as well as newcomers Kadofi Wright, Joey Alfieri, and Jordan Genmark-Heath, this group is solid but it’s another big unknown for the team especially with little in the way of details for Moore’s suspension. 

Showboats have lost a couple players at the position, Emmanuel Beal most notably who first tried to pursue the XFL, only to get cut, blow up on Twitter, and then end up in the CFL. Prior to ending up in the USFL Anthony Butler had multiple NFL teams looking his way. He would spend time with the Colts but wind up released. This allowed Memphis to pick him up, Butler could be your direct replacement for Beal. The Showboats seem to like smaller faster linebackers with every player at the position standing 241 lbs or less. Greg Reaves stands 241 lbs, but also sees time at defensive end. This could make them vunerable to the run game with their focus clearly being on the passing game. I have to give Memphis the edge here, their group seems to be talented, experienced, and ready to go in 2023. 

Secondary: Stars

The Stars feature two alternative football stalwarts in Channing Stribling and Cody Brown. Both played in the AAF, XFL, and USFL, and are regarded as top end players for the league. While Stribling led the team, and league with 7 interceptions, Amani Dennis, Ahmad Dixon, and Ladarius Wiley all managed interceptions as well producing 11 as a team in 10 games. This was a huge reason the Stars led the turnover differential in 2022 with +8. Their talent as a unit might make them the best in the league let alone this game. 

Memphis has playmakers in the secondary, but they’re not nearly the talent laden unit that the Stars have. With interesting players across the board including Quinton Meeks who collected a couple interceptions last season. However the unit simply can’t stand up to the Stars. 

Special Teams: Stars

The Stars had their fair share of struggles trying to get their kicking game where it needed to be, but at first their strength was their punt game. That was until a switch at the specialist position where Matt Mengel primarily a punter was replaced by Luis Aguilar primarily a kicker. He would go several weeks without missing a kick, but the ypunt unit suffered somewhat dropping in per punt average substantially. The return unit led by Maurice Alexander was one of the best in the league producing the highest per return average. 

The Showboats had a struggles trying to get Tyler Rausa to clean up his consistency but after going 9 of 14 last season the team moved on to a new kicker Alex Kessman, he spent time with three NFL franchises, but played in just one game with the Jets. In that game he would not attempt a field goal, but go  zero for two on extra points. Kessman isn’t exactly the model for consistency in terms of accuracy. He held a 71% accuracy rate in college. He also Kendall kick off‘s which is what I believe got him the opportunity in the NFL in the first place. Teams see that he’s got one of the strongest legs you can find out the free-agent market for kickers but they all believe they can fix his accuracy issues and so far no one has. Brandon Wright was one of the better punters in the league on 45 punts he had just 16 returned. He had a long of 76 yards last year. Their return game lacked explosiveness but we will see if they make a change at kick returner. 

Final Words

Overall this game is a lot closer match than a lot of people really think. Showboats were always a well coached team, there was just in my mind moves that needed to be made from a roster perspective that were never made until the off-season. The Bandits handicapped Jordan Ta’amu last season asking him to carry an offense without a run game, and overcome a return game that couldn’t produce more than 23 yards per return, and as if that wasn’t enough also a kick in game that left 16 points on the board last season. 

Not only is this a different team because Jordan Ta’amu is no longer there to carry them it’s a different team because they don’t need him to. At this point they need to run the ball, convert kicks, and reduce turnovers. In my personal opinion the players with the Showboats now at quarterback all seem to be more natural fits in Haley’s offense than Ta’amu, my main concern is their offensive line. If they don’t prove to be better this season, any hopes Memphis has of competing for a championship game will be dashed quickly. 

My prediction for this game:

Stars 28-24 Showboats

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