Coming off a disappointing 3-7 record, the Houston Gamblers are looking to bounce back from missing the playoffs but build off their momentum of winning their last two games of the season.
The 2022 season was a wild roller coaster ride for the Houston Gamblers as they got off to a good start beating the Michigan Panthers 17-12. After that point though, it was a seven-game losing streak that included five straight losses where Houston blew a fourth-quarter lead. They were able to finish their season with a two-game winning streak beating the USFL champions Birmingham Stallions and New Orleans Breakers.
There was plenty of firepower on the defense that included USFL tackling leader Donald Payne and USFL Defensive Player of the Year Chris Odom leading a stout defense. Linebacker Reggie Northrup and defensive back Will Likely played key roles on defense as well. Likely, Odom and Payne were named All-USFL members at the end of the season.
Offensively, Houston was among one of the best-rushing teams in the USFL through five weeks thanks to running back Mark Thompson. His production in the second half dropped drastically and the team struggled to run the ball. Their quarterback situation took a turn when Clayton Thorson got hurt and saw Kenji Bahar win two starts on the season with his mobility and strong arm playing key roles in that.
There is much change going into training camp for Houston as they have a new coaching staff and multiple key defensive players are no longer on the team. The strength of the Gamblers this season appears to be on the offense whereas it is the opposite that most of the starters are back on the team. Fans of Houston go into the season uncertain about what the team is going to look like, but there are plenty of storylines to follow during training camp.
Top Houston Gamblers Training Camp Storylines
Same Offense, Different Coaching Staff
The good news is most of the offensive starters are back. Four of the five starting offensive linemen from their season finale are returning to the team. As for the skill players, wide receiver Isaiah Zuber and quarterback Clayton Thorson are the only ones not back with everyone else returning.
It’s a different story for the coaching staff as offensive line coach Andy Townsend is the only returning coach to the staff. Everyone else is new for head coach Curtis Johnson as Eric Price will be running the offense and coaching the quarterbacks. Expect a shotgun spread offense that will lean heavily on defenses having to spy on the quarterbacks which should open the running game for the backs and lead to big plays down the field.
Their running game will have Thompson back with late-season addition Benny LeMay returning after having a strong close to the season with 70 yards against the New Orleans Breakers. Newcomer TJ Pledger could be a guy to watch out for after he spent time with the Arizona Cardinals in training camp last year. Pledger and returning backup running back Devwah Whaley could be part of a running back-by-committee rotation this season.
Kenji Bahar’s Team to Run?
Thorson is gone and no longer running the offense. Bahar fills the role after collecting two wins closing the season out. He showed great potential and the plays he was able to make with his legs. His arm strength stands out on tape as he has great playmaking ability.
A quarterback who could compete for the starting job is Terry Wilson who was brought on late last season to backup Bahar after Thorson injured his arm knocking him out the rest of the season. Wilson has similar skill sets that Bahar has and had success in college being the only player in Kentucky history to throw for over 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards. The other quarterback on the roster is Montell Cozart who spent time with the Birmingham Stallions before also being signed by the Gamblers to backup Bahar. Another mobile quarterback who can be a potential playmaker when he needs to be.
All three quarterbacks have a chance to start, but Bahar is coming in as the favorite to win the job. Wilson is most likely the one that will challenge Bahar in camp, but with a new coaching staff, anything can happen. Bahar needs to show off his arm talent and make plays with his legs if he wants to beat out what could be a competitive quarterback room.
A Whole New Defense
This will not be the same defense the Gamblers put onto the field last year as there are a lot of new faces on the team. Focusing on who is back this season, two players to watch out for in the secondary are safeties, Manny Bunch and Jeremiah Johnson. Bunch is the leading tackler from the returning players to the roster after recording 31.5 tackles last year. Johnson is the second leading tackler among returning players with 20.5 tackles and is one of two players returning who had an interception. That other player is cornerback Bydarrius Knighten.
In total, 14 players are now on the defensive side who were not a part of the team last season. Fox’s RJ Young named defensive end Eli Howard and linebacker Isaiah Proyer as two of the newcomers to watch out for on the defensive side. Proyer has big shoes to fill having to replace Donald Payne and Reggie Northrup at linebacker. Howard and another newcomer Tim Bonner are looking to be the guys to help replace Chris Odom.
Curtis Johnson Takes Over For Kevin Sumlin
It’s a changing of the guard for Houston and it was changed just one month ago when former head coach Kevin Sumlin went back to college to be the offensive coordinator at Maryland. That opened the door for former Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson to get his second chance at being a head coach. Johnson had the biggest challenge of any coach in the USFL by building a coaching staff and getting the right players in place in one month.
Coach Johnson appeared to be ready for the challenge of putting together a solid coaching staff. They have been set up with a roster that has a lot of upsides on the offensive side of the ball. His biggest challenge was getting the defense to the same level as last season’s unit. This is a young team that could develop into a dark horse team come playoff time.