Head Coach: Rick Neuheisel
Stadium: Sun Devil Stadium
Rick Neuheisel was connected to the Alliance very early but it was said he wanted to coach the Phoenix franchise where he lived, as opposed to the Fleet in San Diego. He’d don the cap and be announced with Phoenix on May 18th of 2018, to play on the campus of Arizona State University at Sun Devil Stadium. Former NFL GM Phil Savage was also brought on as well a few weeks later.
The choice of the Phoenix was as confusing to me as selecting Atlanta. Phoenix just doesn’t have a great history of supporting its football franchises. It is just not known as a hotbed of football, however, from the location standpoint, it made sense in terms of eyes on the product- ie ratings.
The AAF itself made some controversial moves with the franchise. At the team unveiling on September 25th, when the team name was announced locals were sort of taken aback at the choice of Hotshots. The general sentiment from the league office was that the team name was a tribute to the area’s first respondents- (but with the Hotshots name it was a direct nod to elite firefighters who battle the most dangerous wildfires nationwide). Locally there was some general grumbling from locals who felt the name was exploitive and in bad taste.
In October 2018, the franchise hired disgraced NCAA coach Hugh Freeze as offensive coordinator. Later in December, Freeze departed from the Hotshots to coach at Liberty University- and no specific coordinator was designated to take his place, so it is assumed that Rick Neuheisel picked back up the play calling.
Also at some point the league made the decision to change the team location name from Phoenix to Arizona. Early marketing materials still pointed the franchise to Phoenix and #AlliancePHX. While this is not too controversial, it was more confusing than anything.
QB Mike Bercovici was one of the early signings of the squad and a fan favorite, but he was left unprotected in the QB draft and ended up playing for the Fleet.
Rick Neuheisel is considered an offensive madman, and tends to lean towards pass heavy styles that involve a pistol offense. Offensively the team scored 21 TDs (7 rushing, 14 passing), had a -3 turnover differential, converted 30 of 90 3rd downs, and 1 of 9 4th downs. The Hotshots yards per game was second in the league (343.9) to Orlando.
Trevor Knight was the odds on favorite to guide the Hotshots after they took him with their first pick in the Protect or Pick QB draft- but unheralded John Wolford snagged the starting gig. Wolford finished only second to Garrett Gilbert (ORL) in passing, and was the first player to win Offensive Player of the Week Honors twice. He finished with 1617 yards and 14 TDs to 7 interceptions and a whopping 7.8 yards per attempt. He was also dangerous on the ground rushing for 160 yards on 36 carries and a 35 yard TD. Knight was very gracious. He saw little action during the season coming off the bench throwing for under 100 yards.
Arizona had the best rushing attack in the AAF at 1,133 yards. Jhurell Pressley led the league in rushing with 430 yards on 96 attempts (1 TD). Pressley was also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield contributing 11 receptions for 86 yards and a TD. Tim Cook provided a slight change of pace as a bigger back. He ranked second behind Pressley and had 275 yards on 56 carries and 3 TDs. Justin Stockton spelled Pressley in the lineup as needed. He ran 43 times for 233 yards and a 45 yard TD. Larry Rose saw little playing time, but ran 6 times for 16 yards.
At receiver the greatest recipient of Wolford’s attention was rangy long bomb threat Rashad Ross. He caught 36 passes for 583 yards (2nd) and 7 TDs (1st). Richard Mullaney got into the action in 5 games catching 20 passes for 213 yards. Marquis Bundy was an interesting talent. He caught 13 passes for 178 yards, while Freddie Martino had 11 catches for 126 yards. Josh Huff contributed another 163 on 11 receptions too, while Deion Holliman made it count catching only one pass for 15 yards that went for a TD.
At tight end Gerald Christian ranked 3rd on the team with 14 receptions for 158 yards and a TD. Thomas Duarte had 8 catches for 111 yards and 2 TDs, while big man Connor Hamlett had 5 catches for 40 yards. The Hotshots were in the top 3 when it came to tight end production ranked only behind Salt Lake and San Diego- respectively.
The Hotshots offensive line allowed 15 sacks on the season- which comes out to roughly 2 a game. That’s pretty decent and allowed the Hotshots to finish as the 3rd ranked offensive line.
(3-4) On defense the Hotshots had the worst 3rd down ratio in the league, allowing nearly 40% of 3rd downs to be converted for firsts. The Hotshots recovered 5 fumbles and made 7 interceptions on the season, while allowing 17 TDs. Their defense ranked 7th overall (329.9 yards per game), with rushing defense being their Achilles heel.
Nyles Morgan led the team in tackles from linebacker. Starting in just 3 games, the former Golden Domer racked up 58 total tackles and a forced fumble. Steven Johnson started 6 games posting 45 tackles and 3 interceptions for 44 yards. Steve Beauharnais posted .5 sacks and 30 total tackles, while Carl Bradford had 12 solo tackles, a forced fumble, and 2 sacks. Kaelin Burnett had 17 total tackles, a forced fumble, and a sack, while long haired Scooby Wright had 22 total tackles. Finally Edmond Robinson had 23 and a sack in 6 starts. Pretty solid production through and through.
Defensive back had some familiar names out there including Rahim Moore with 25 tackles but these guys were known more as pass deflectors rather than interceptors. Erick Dargan statistically led the secondary with 53 total tackles and a pick. Dexter McDougle intercepted a pass and had 16 total tackles, while Sterling Moore had another 23. Former Ex-an and ex-Commander Robert Nelson had an interception and 21 tackles. Shaquille Richardson had 18 tackles and an interception. It was a chippy group of defenders in the secondary, that allowed 204.3 yards per game- good for 3rd.
Situational starter Da’Sean Downey led the down linemen in sacks with 3.5. He’d play in 5 games making just one start at DE. Rykeem Yates- also at DE started 7 games and had 3 sacks and 25 total tackles. Obum Gwachim had 2 sacks 16 tackles, while the rest came in at a sack each: Will Sutton, 28 tackles and a sack, Sione Teuhema, 19 tackles and a sack, and Bunmi Rotimi had 6 tackles and a sack. The Hotshots rushing defense was the worst in the league, allowing 125.6 yards per game.
The Hotshots were ranked 6th in net punting average behind the foot of Jeff Locke who punted 33 times for 1,460 yards dropping 14 inside the 20. The Hotshots were pretty woeful on special teams with a net of 38.67 per put allowed. Opponents were able to net 124 yards on 13 returns.
Veteran NFL kicker Nick Folk stepped in for Arizona. He’d hit 12 of 16 field goals on the season, including a league long 55 yarder (36 points).
On punt returns, WR Deion Holliman had 10 punt returns for 123 yards and 5 fair catches. Rashad Ross would go back on seldom occasion to put the fear in opposing coverage units, but only managed 3 returns for 12 yards.
Arizona was frankly a terrible selection for the Alliance in terms of attendance. Here was Sun Devil Stadium- on the campus of Arizona State University, which was located in the Phoenix Metropolitan area, and the best the Hotshots could muster was an unenthusiastic high of 11,751 at their season opener?
After a two week road trip, the Hotshots were sitting at 2-1. They then gave up two home games, first embarrassed at home by the Legends (14-11) where a measly 8,865 showed up, and then second to the Commanders where the score wasn’t as close as it looked (9,351). They then went on the road and upset Orlando, to come home to beat the Fleet in Week 7 (9,750). Afterwards the Hotshots went on the road in Week 8 and upset the Commanders by a resounding score of 22-7, finishing quietly at 5-3. Overall, the Hotshots averaged a minuscule 9,932 fans a game- 7th in the league. Their online footprint was just as bad with a tiny and unengaged fanbase.
Arizona had one more home game on the schedule the following week against the Iron- but would they have even crossed the 10k barrier for that?
Before the season opener the Hotshots retired the number 19 in honor of the 19 Hotshots killed in 2013 by the Yarnell Hill Fire.
The Hotshots were an excellent team at making halftime adjustments. They outscored 7 of 8 opponents in the second half by a total margin of 101-46.
Rashad Ross caught 7 of the 8 WR TDs.
Rick Neuheisel played in the USFL for the San Antonio Gunslingers. A Neuheisel superfan showed up pregame versus the Commanders dressed up with his jersey on and some gear. Neuheisel was very impressed, came over, took a photo with the guy and signed an autograph for him.
The Commanders/ Hotshots game would be the final game played in league history.
The Hotshots after the league announced that they were folding declared themselves AAF 2019 Champions on Twitter- citing the fact that they had beaten both the Commanders and Apollos.
San Antonio lost to Arizona in that final game, however, based on tie breakers, I was surprised to see ARZ at the top of the division and still not SA. A few weeks ago I sheepishly mentioned this on Twitter- because the AAF was using NFL tie breaking rules, since they had none of their own, SA should be first in the division based on strength of schedule. Shortly thereafter some one broke down the tiebreakers, and indeed, San Antonio is now posted at the top of the standings on the AAF Wikipedia entry.
Overall here was a team that had really grown throughout the season after some miscues early on, but by that Week 8 contest- they had total buy in from everybody. They were a good team and a lot of fun to watch. I think the Hotshots stood as strong challengers in the West to win the AAF Championship.