Tag Archives: aaf

Memphis Express

Record: 2-6
Coach: Mike Singletary
Stadium: Liberty Stadium

BACKGROUND:

Memphis was the third city named to the AAF back on May 4th, 2018. It made sense, as the city fit the footprint of the former XFL with the Memphis Maniax and their continued support for the NBA Grizzlies. It also had a rich history of hosting other franchises over the last 30 years including the Showboats (USFL) and briefly, the Tennessee Oilers. Memphis is at a crossroads of sorts in the Mid-South and that’s part of its problem with attracting sports franchises and teams. Much like San Antonio, Memphis isn’t really a sexy pick, so it always ends up playing the role of the handmaiden, as its neighbors pick up all the glory.

About a week after the city was named, Memphis’ new coach was announced, and boy did it have a nice buzz to it, as former head coach Mike Singletary was returning to the big stage. It had the trappings of the feel good story of the year. He’d assemble his coaching staff which included such former NFL names as OJ Otowge and Pepper Johnson. Dennis Thurman, David Lee, Hal Mumme, and Tom Mason were also notable coaching finds with considerable experience.

At first I sort of shrugged my shoulders at the logo. I felt it was a bit too close to the league logo colors, and that the Express name and colors were a bit too easy to name after the delivery service. Nonetheless- it grew on me throughout the season, and by the end of the season, it was quite lovable.

The team name comes from the fact that Memphis “is one of the leading centers for logistics and transportation. In fact, Federal Express is based out of the city. So intangibly, speed and precision come along with that.”

– According to Kosha Irby, the Express’ President.

When it came to big names to associate with the team when it launched, Mike Singletary was the uncontested big name. Team president Kosha Irby also had some buzz since he was a Memphis alum as well. Zac Stacy, Kenny Hilliard, and Chris Givens were all interesting players that Memphis signed early on that fans had interest in.

An intriguing find was ‘architect of the Air Raid Offense’- Hal Mumme- to be the offensive coordinator. With him in place, it looked like Memphis was going to be a tough team to beat in the East.

“Hal Mumme brings many positives to our team and offense,” Express coach Mike Singletary said in a press release. “First and foremost, it’s his creativity. I know it’s called the air raid system, but I want to use his imagination to get into the end zone and bring balance to the offense. I know the physicality that I want to have on our team. I want to bring muscle to the passing game.”

-Mike Singletary

Oddly around two weeks later, Mumme was out of the picture. The franchise and Hal had a ‘mutual parting of ways’- just 6 days before the Quarterback Protect or Pick Draft.

Whatever prevented Hal Mumme from becoming OC was the start of it. It could have been great with him but the team ended up going with David Lee, bad decision. The offense was getting progressively better once Bobby Blizzard came into the picture.

-Express & Goal Sports or Something
@MemphisAAF

OFFENSE:

And with the 3rd pick of the 2019 AAF quarterback draft, the Memphis Express elected to protect… Troy Cook, QB- UT Martin.
Insert audible gasp here. Not just any gasp- No. Let’s go with like the first time patrons at the Detroit Auto show saw the Pontiac Aztec type gasp. The Express didn’t select again until the 15th pick of round two, when they chose Christian Hackenberg. So there you have it. Lovable Memphis’ problems in an nutshell. Cook it turned out was the only player selected in the first round of the AAF QB draft to not even make it out of training camp. Hack would be the starter out of the gate, backed up by overlooked Zach Mettenberger, and Brandon Silvers.

Hackenberg represented just as much the feel good story that Singletary did, and in camp he showed a lot of promise. He had an excellent preseason game against SLC- posting 128 yards and a TD on 9/15 passes. Then the bottom fell out. Hack started 3 games before he yielded to Mettenberger. Under constant pressure with receivers dropping passes left and right, Christian finished with 277 yards passing and zero passing TDs in 2 and a half games.

Zack gave the Express some oomph that they really needed. Mettenberger sat in the green room of the QB Draft the longest- as team after team passed on him, but he’d show how wrong they were over the next few weeks. Taking over for Hack during the second half of the Orlando/ Memphis tilt, Mettenberger passed for 2 TDs and a 2 point conversion to get things rolling. He’d then have a solid contest against the Fleet in Week 4, leading the team to a win as he threw for 174 yards and a TD, while rushing for one more. He’d then lose a heartbreaker to Atlanta in the final seconds of regulation in Week 5. Things were moving in a positive direction, but Zack on the first offensive play from scrimmage against the Stallions in Week 6, got taken down awkwardly by Karter Schult. Zack’s season was over.

Enter Brandon Silvers. Just looking for a chance, Silvers came in and put on a show for the Express. Over the next 3 contests he’d set team passing records every week despite the fact that (after losing to the Stallions,) things went a bit off the rails as Johnny Manziel joined the Express…

For some reason, Memphis just kept trying to put Johnny in the lineup despite Silvers’ offensive rhythm. Johnny threw for 61 yards and a pick, while running 5 times for 38 yards over the final two weeks of the AAF season. In the meantime, Silvers beat the Iron, passing for a franchise high 266 yards 2 TDs (24/35), and two 2 point conversions. (It would also be the only OT game in league history.) Silvers then put on a show against Orlando, as Memphis almost upset the champs, losing to them in the final seconds of the final game of the year. Thanks in part to those dismal first few games, the Express finished with the worst passing offense in the league averaging 179.2 yards per game.

The rushing offense was led by former pros Zac Stacy and Raijon Neal out of the gate. Stacy would go over 100 yards in the second game of the season, as the team continued to search for an identity. After that strong performance early in the year, Stacy waddled in with 312 yards on 101 carries. He’d lead the team with 3 rushing TDs including a 49 yard long- but finished the season on IR. He also caught 18 passes for 138 yards and a TD- to rank second on the team. Terrence Magee gave it his best shot. The diminutive back clocked in at 5-8, 213, but rushed for 134 yards on 40 carries and 2 TDs. He was second among the Express RBs with 11 catches and a TD. Sherman Badie saw action in 3 games starting 1. He’d run for 74 yards on 16 carries and catch 3 passes for 87 yards. Kenny Hilliard and Rajion Neal lasted all of two games apiece, while Anthony Manzo-Lewis saw limited action in all 8 games as the fullback. The rushing offense finished with 694 yards- good for 7th in the league.

The team’s secret weapon was WR Reece Horn. As Memphis’ offensive identity began to coalesce, it was really apparent that he and Silvers were forming a good rapport. Reece posted back to back 100+ yard games against the Stallions and Iron in week 6 and 7 and finish with 429 yards on 28 catches. Pig Howard started 5 games and snagged 17 receptions for 157 yards from the slot. Gerrard Sheppard started on the other side of the field from Horn. He posted 12 catches for 155 yards and a 40 yard TD. Daniel Williams saw action in 4 games, starting 2. He’d finish tied for 3rd in receptions with 17 for 164 yards and a TD. Dontez Byrd saw action in 6 games behind Sheppard. He’d have 10 catches for 131 yards and a TD. Devin Lucien started a game and played in 5 managing 9 catches for 113 yards and a 30 yards TD, while Fabian Guerra and Kayaune Ross contributed to a limited degree as well.

Memphis’ tight end group was led by Brandon Barnes. As most targets were going to the receivers, and the offensive line needed all the help they could get on passing downs, Barnes finished with 9 receptions for 75 yards. He was backed up by Adrien Robinson, who had very similar stats with 7 receptions for 40 yards.

The offensive line had some terrible days punctuated by some individual highlights. The line finished in a 5 way tie for last, giving up 23 sacks. Christian Morris (LT), Davonte Boudin (LG), Demetrius Rhaney (C), Dallas Thomas (RG), and Toby Weathersby (RT), made up the starting group. The Express sported the worst 3rd down conversion rating in the league with a dismal 25% (27-106).

DEFENSE:

(4-3) The Express front four from left to right consisted of Jamichael Winston, Julius Warmsley, Latarius Brady, and Corey Vereen. Vereen led the front four in sacks with 4 (12 tackles, 2 forced fumbles). Jamichael led the down linemen in tackles with 18 (.5 sacks). Warmsley had 2.5 sacks and 16 tackles, while Latarius had 8 and a sack. Greg Gilmore was a sneaky 2 gap nose who came in and posted 2 sacks and 11 tackles. Outside of that Montori Hughes, Corey Crawford, and Martin Ifedi combined for maybe 10 tackles.

With a coach like Mike Singletary- you know that this team would pay special attention to its middle 3. With that being said Drew Jackson, Davis Tull, and DeMarquis Gates had productive seasons. Gates led the AAF in tackles and was named Defensive Player of the Week. He finished with a line of 72 tackles, a sack, and 5 forced fumbles on the year at weakside linebacker. Davis Tull in the middle out of UT- Chatanooga had 37 tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery. Andrew ‘Drew’ Jackson took no prisoners either from stronside finishing with an impressive 52 total tackles, a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble. Backing them up was Freddie Bishop and Quentin Gause. Colton Jumper floated around as an elephant back between the secondary and linebacker corps and had 25 tackles.

The back 4 was led by Arnold Tarpley at free safety who had 44 tackles and a pick. Former Texan Charles James II came out of nowhere to have 25 tackles from CB starting 3 games. Channing Stribling had an interception and 19 tackles in 6 starts (8 games). Jonathan Cook also picked up a pick and 8 total tackles playing in 6 games. Justin Martin started 2 games (5 played) and managed to have 9 tackles and an interception. Jeremy Cutrer came out of Middle Tennessee State to start 6 games. He posted an interception, 2 fumble recoveries, and 20 total tackles. Brandon Maiden also chipped in 7 tackles. Of note, no player on defense had more than 1 interception.

Overall defensive numbers looked average at best as their 3rd down defense came in around the middle of the pack allowing 34% conversions. The Express made only 17 sacks, ranking 6th, while their turnover differential wasn’t too bad, coming in flat at -1.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

The special teams were just as incongruous as the rest of the team.

Reece Horn juggled #1 receiving duties also with being the team’s primary punt returner. He had 9 returns for 125 yards including a 33 yarder he almost broke to daylight. Amir Carlisle had 4 returns for 17 yards, while Sherman Badie, Dontez Byrd, and Pig Howard stood back to return a combined 4 times.

Brad Wing started out as the punter, but he’d be cut a few weeks into the season. He finished with 16 punts for 705 yards, 6 inside the 20 and a puny net of 41.5. He was replaced by Ryan Winslow, Winslow really boomed his kicks averaging 48.4 yards per punt (27 punts), dropping 10 inside the 20 (2 touchbacks), and nailing a 68 yard long.

Hometown Josh Jasper started as the kicker for the Express but he too cut after going 3/5- but missing 2 field goals over 40 yards. Austin MacGinnis replaced him at kicker and finished 9/11 on field goals including 4/4 over 40 yards. He’d also kick the game winner for the franchise’s first win.

Although DeMarquis Gates had the only punt block in the history of the short lived league the Express allowed 23 returns for 160 yards and a TD as Winslow outkicked his coverage with regularity.

THE SEASON:

The Express’ expectations came crashing back down to reality right out of the gate playing against the Iron in Week 1, as they were shut out. In the Express’ season opener against the Hotshots, Memphis fell 20-18 in front of a supposed crowd of 11,980. After almost beating the Orlando Apollos on the road behind Zach Mettenberger, Memphis returned home to play the San Diego Fleet. A reputed 13,621 showed up to see the Express pull off their first win of the season. The Express drew a two game road stand, where they lost a heart breaker to Atlanta, and then got socked in the face by Salt Lake.

Returning home without Mettenberger, the largest crowd in Express history showed up for week 7- 13,758. They’d not be disappointed as the Johnny Manziel/ Brandon Silvers show, pulled off the OT upset over the Iron.

The Week 8 game- in which 12,417 attended, was marred by controversy as the teams combined for a league high 25 penalties. Memphis alone had 13-147, as Mike Singletary himself garnered the penalty that allowed the Apollos to sneak in to win the game. It would be an ignominious end to the franchise.

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NOTES:

During the first contest, Christian Hackenberg showed us why all players should not necessarily be miced up as he had some amazing profanity laced tirades.

Zac Stacy notched the league’s first 100 yard rushing game in week 2 against the Arizona Hotshots.

Johnny Manziel mania gripped the AAF after Week 5, as the league tried to figure out what to do with the former Heisman Winner. After his regional team that controlled his rights- The Commanders- opted not to sign him, Memphis got first dibs, and immediately added him to their roster.

The Express were the most undisciplined team in the AAF finishing with 75 penalties for 620 yards.

The Express’ record is very misleading, as they were 2-4 in games decided by 6 points or less.

During the bankruptcy disclosure it was revealed that perhaps the Express attendance numbers were inflated- so the above numbers given could be inaccurate.

Before the league shut down, Memphis added to the active roster: DL Anthony Johnson, OL Anthony Morris, RB Jarvion Franklin and LB Taiwan Jones.

The next game for the Express was at San Antonio. I had my season tickets ready to go in the app, and was looking forward to greeting Mike and his team in the endzone.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

What if the Express came out of the gate with Brandon Silvers at QB? It wasn’t the most sexy pick, but by the end of the season, he was the right player at the position. He really made the Express more competitive from top down especially when he was on the same page with Reece Horn. They managed to beat Birmingham and gave Orlando a run for its money. The Express never stopped churning their roster over to find the right guys from QB to Special teams- to even their coaching staff (!!), and I think the team was on the right path. It just took a long time to get there.

Although they were out of the playoff race, Memphis faced San Antonio- and Atlanta. I doubt seriously that the Express would beat SA, but Atlanta, that was doable to finish 3-7 on the year- and I had to double check that because Memphis’ played some good games. They just couldn’t finish them out.

NOTABLE PLAYERS:

HC- MIKE SINGLETARY
QB- CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG
RB- RAJION NEAL, ZAC STACY
LB- DAVIS TULL
CB- CHANNING STRIBLING, CHARLES JAMES

Salt Lake City Stallions

Record: 3-5
Coach: Dennis Erickson
Stadium: Rice-Eccles

The Stallions had deep sky blue, blue, and silver as their primary colors. Their helmet was quite unique as fingers of color gracing across the silver hat were representative of a stallion’s mane.

BACKGROUND:

In all honesty when Salt Lake City was selected to host an AAF team, the first thing I thought was, “Why?” I desperately wanted to be proven wrong, but from the get go I thought that this was the worst location in the league and shouldn’t have been considered- little less awarded a team. Not only is Utah not considered a hotbed of football, there’s a whole other issue of concessions and beer sales. I laughed when the city was originally floated as a founding team, because I felt that there was just too many other cities that were passionate about the sport that’d do a better job supporting this team- and unfortunately I was right- in a very bad way.

Salt Lake played in Utah’s Rice-Eccles outdoor stadium starting in February. The stadium did little to promote the team compared to other venues. Sure they had the outdoor banners (that long after the team left they still had up), but they didn’t even bother with trying to do anything with the end zones or adding a bit of flair to it. It still had the Utah Utes logo all over the field.

Dennis Erickson fresh off retirement returned to the game with Randy Mueller as his GM. It was a complimentary pairing as they had worked together in Seattle during the 90s. Erickson nabbed some football veterans to his staff including Donnie Henderson (DC), Michael Gray (DL), and Ron Zook (ST/DB).

The Stallions name was chosen because there were so many wild horses in and around the SLC region when it was discovered. The name also held significance because of all the land speed records that are set at the Bonneville Flats. The uniforms were really nice. A good color composition especially with that powder blue/ blue, the colors were chosen to represent the aspects of Utah’s geography in the region with the Wasatch mountain range.

The team had some interesting names to lure fans in, but Matt Asiata and Dres Anderson stuck out more than any other on this roster, before the team entered the preseason.

The Stallions pulled from a heavy concentration of colleges across Utah. This gave the team unique and unintended access to Polynesian players. It also allowed the Stallions to build a defensive behemoth.

OFFENSE:

The Stallions’ offensive potential was doomed out of the gate by a series of bad luck injuries. Josh Woodrum was the team’s pick in the QB Draft. They’d come back and select BJ Daniels and Austin Allen.

Daniels had an excellent camp, and was on his way to being the starter over Woodrum, before a freak injury during the preseason game, ended his season. Woodrum stepped back in and actually finished as the league’s 4th rated quarterback. In 7 games he was second in completions (146), PCT (64.3), and 3rd in attempts (227), while throwing for 1,449 yards, and 6 TDs to 8 interceptions. Austin Allen started a game, and threw for 120 yards. The passing offense finished in 6th place.

Rushing offense was just below average. Matt Asiata was injured for a good portion of the season so they relied on the legs of Joel Bouagnon to lead the team. He respectively churned up 360 yards and 6 TDs to lead the team. Branden Oliver chipped in another 210 yards on 54 carries. Terrell Newby was a 3rd down valve, rushing 17 times for 39 yards and leading the ‘backs with 13 catches for 111 yards. From there it was Terron Ward (86 yards), and Matt Asiata (10 yards) as far as production was concerned.

The receiving corps was also hit by injuries as Dres Anderson only saw action in one game. That’s fine as De’Mornay Pierson-El hogged the receptions boasting 36 catches for 414 yards and a TD. A slippery one, he forced 9 missed tackles on the year and was second in yardage after the catch. Adonis Jennings was next with 17 for 210. Outside of that the receiving corps slipped off production-wise at this point as most of the targets were going to the tight end group. Kenny Bell made 12 catches for 97 yards, Brian Tyms checked in with 11 for 82, and Jordan Leslie had 10 for 71. Alarmingly the wide receiver group would only account for TWO touchdowns on the season as Pierson-El and Jordan Leslie both grabbed one a piece.

Salt Lake really had the best tight ends in the AAF. From a stand point of production they had Nick Truesdell (24 receptions for 269 yards and a team leading 3 TD catches)- best at the position in the league. Then you had Anthony Denham right behind Nick with another 18 receptions (179 yards and a TD). Austin Traylor saw only 7 targets on the season, but was used more as a blocker.

The offensive line was pretty stout, allowing 15 sacks on the season, tied for second. The team’s overall average total yardage was 286.2- which ranked 6th. A touchdown deficient team, Salt Lake frequently shot themselves in the foot with turnovers, fumbling a baffling 17 times (losing 9 of them), while being intercepted 9 times. On top of that the team ranked 6th in 3rd down percentage, converting a meager 31 percent.

DEFENSE:

(4-3) Salt Lake City’s defense was outstanding finishing second overall. Yielding only 291 yards a game, the Stallions were stout against the run allowing a league low 72.9 yards per game, and it wasn’t even close, as second place was well over 20 yards behind them. While SLC’s secondary was middle of the road giving up 218.1 yards per game, they were 3rd in points allowed giving up a stingy 17.9 points. On the season, the defense only created 10 turnovers, but 3rd down defense was stellar sitting at 35/113 or just 30% on the year (2nd). The Stallions front 8 was thoroughly frustrating overall as they led the league with 24 sacks on the year.

Along the defensive line the Stallions featured Karter Schult as an edge rusher. Starting in 8 games, Karter had 31 total tackles and 7 sacks (2nd in the AAF). Sealver Siliga at the other DT would kick out to nose when needed. The space eater clocked in at 6-2, 345 and had 19 total tackles and 1.5 sacks. Mike Purcell was also another big guy at DT. He led the defensive linemen with 42 total tackles and 3 sacks. Tenny Palepoi started all 8 games and had 22 total stops and 3.5 sacks also at DT. Chris Odom had 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Tanner Balderree, Darius Hamilton, Tuni Kanuch, Handsome Tanielu, and Eddie Wilson were also in the trenches for SLC. The Stallions’ line was the most feared, well coached, and put together group in the league.

The linebacking crew of the Stallions were heat seeking missles. The indefatigable Greer Martini had 55 tackles, a sack and a pick. Trevor Reilly from the other side had 44 tackles and a sack. Gionni Paul despite starting just 5 games had 44 total tackles and .5 sacks. Luke Carrezola had some bright moments with 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks, while Josh Banderas, Gionni Paul, Ty Schwab, John Timu, Ed Shockley and Anthony Williams saw limited time coming off the bench.

The secondary itself was pretty decent. Although they didn’t get many interceptions, the back 4 were underrated. Former 3rd round pick of the Dolphins, Will Davis had 26 total tackles, an interception, and 2 fumble recoveries. Henre’ Tolliver started 3 games and had a fumble recovery and 19 total tackles. Cody Brown had an interception and 40 tackles. Steve Williams – former Chargers pick had a pick and 10 tackles playing in 7 contests. CJ Smith had a solid year. The 2 year NFL vet and ND State alum had 28 tackles and a pick. Finally Micah Hannemann in the secondary at safety posted 22 tackles. Along the way Jeremiah Johnson, Brandon Shippen, Jordan Sterns, Ciante Evans, and Chaceller James all helped out on defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Taylor Bertolet won the kicking job late in camp and finish 9 of 14 on the season for 29 points. He’d also kick at 54 yard field goal during the process- tying for the second longest in league history.

Austin Rehkow out of Idaho posted 40 punts on the season for 1,803 yards (45.1 yards per punt) with a long of 65 yards. He had 2 touchbacks and 12 dropped within the 20. The coverage was decent as Rehkow finished with a 39.6 net average.

Sam Mobley was featured on punt returns. He had 11 of them for 96 yards with a long of 30.

SEASON:

The Stallions had the worst attendance in the league. Granted, SLC’s first home game was 3 games into the season, (which seems a bit stupid for an 8 team league in an inaugural season,) the Stallions were only able to muster a paltry 10,412 to the game- a league low to that date in attendance. Temperature probably played a part in it. On that day, (according to Accuweather,) the temperature was a high of 36 and a low of 19. By that point the team was already 0-2 and facing the Arizona Hotshots again for the second time in the season.

After beating the Hotshots at home for their first win, the Stallions hosted the Orlando Apollos. Despite putting up a titanic defensive effort, the Stallions lost in a snowstorm in front of 9,302 patrons. A Week 5 heart breaker versus the Fleet put the team at 1-4 entering a Week 6 home contest against the Memphis Express. -A season low 8,150 showed up to watch the Stallions win that second game.

The Stallions let the Commanders escape their wrath in Week 7, but the attendance numbers rebounded only slightly to 8,405 in Week 8. In that final game the Stallions kept their slim playoff hopes alive as they won a turnover trade-off with the Fleet in a defensive fun fest. Week 10 would’ve been their last home game of the year against the San Antonio Commanders- but the league had long folded by then.

As recounted previously, Salt Lake City had the worst attendance in the AAF. A total of 36,269 was recorded for 4 home games- an overall average of just 9,067. (By comparison, the Apollos played only 3 home games and had 58,943 show up.)

The Stallions team trademark was really their stubborn defense and quality tight ends. On the flip side the Stallions were the team most bit by the injury bug as 12 players finished on IR including starters Dres Anderson, Matt Asiata, Kaelin Clay, and BJ Daniels respectively.

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NOTES:

Not sure what it was with Topps- but Salt Lake got very little love from the Topps Now collection. Out of the 43 cards printed in the short run- only one (#30 Karter Schult) focused on the Stallions. In fact on two occasions (Week 8 and Week 3) there were no cards made for those games, both of which the Stallions played in.

Of all the teams in the AAF, the Salt Lake Stallions represented the furthest north franchise in the league.

Salt Lake was stout at home. The Stallions finished 3-1 at home with a close loss to Orlando blemishing their record. However, SLC was 0-3 on the road.

Salt Lake is odd in that their primary logo, (a Stallion shaped like an S) does not show up on their uniform or helmet design. (Wasn’t too huge a fan of it anyway, since it felt a bit squished).

The Stallions gimmick mascot was a Stallion, ala the Denver Broncos.

After the franchise was founded, it took sometime to get the front office situated, and at one point they were working out of a McDonalds.

SLCs hash tags were “#Ridewithus” and “#FullSteedAhead”.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

As crazy as it sounded, at 3-5 the Stallions still held a slim chance of making the playoffs. They had a road game against Atlanta, and then a home game versus San Antonio. If SLC won out, while everybody lost out, everybody in the division would be 5-5 and SLC with a little hope and luck could’ve made the playoffs.

I really liked this team. They had a lot of heart, a tremendous defense, great trench play, and strong tight ends. Despite their record, the Stallions socked every team in the mouth and came to play lunch pail football every week.

NOTABLE PLAYERS:

HC- DENNIS ERICKSON
OTHER COACHES- MICHAEL GRAY
QB- BJ DANIELS, AUSTIN ALLEN
WR- SAM MOBLEY, ADONIS JENNINGS
LB- TREVOR REILLY, GREER MARTINI

Arizona Hotshots

Record: 5-3
Head Coach: Rick Neuheisel
Stadium: Sun Devil Stadium

The Hotshots had the very flashy, bright color palette of yellow, green, and orange.

BACKGROUND:

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.

Alliance ‘Phoenix’ territory covered a very large area from California to Texas and some of Rick Neuheisel’s old stomping grounds.
Rashad Ross was the highest rated wide receiver according to PFF, just edging out Charles Johnson (ORL).

OFFENSE:

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.

DEFENSE:

(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.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

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.

THE SEASON:

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?

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NOTES:

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.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

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.

NOTABLE PLAYERS:

QB- JOHN WOLFORD, TREVOR KNIGHT
RB- JHURREL PRESSLEY, JUSTIN STOCKTON
WR- MARQUIS BUNDY
TE- GERALD CHRISTIAN
LB- CARL BRADFORD
CB- STERLING MOORE