Last week, we began our look at the Birmingham Stallions 2023 USFL defense by considering the defensive line. Now we turn to the heart of any defense: the linebacker position. Last year, the Stallions typically ran a 4-2-5 defense. Lining up in nickel personnel with a fifth defensive back meant only two linebackers on the field at a time.
Last year, those two linebackers were almost always Scooby Wright and DeMarquis Gates—arguably the best linebacking tandem in the USFL. To understand the Stallions’ linebacking situation heading into 2023, space needs to be dedicated to both these stars.
If you asked any USFL fan about the Stallions defense last year, one name would likely first come to mind: Scooby Wright. As spectacular as Wright was last year, though, there was only one All-USFL defender on the Stallions roster, and it was not him—it was DeMarquis Gates. Many would say Gates was the best defender on the Stallions roster, if not the best player on the entire team. He certainly was one of the best players in the USFL.
Even after missing one game due to injury, Gates finished the season leading the Stallions in tackles (76), tackles for loss (12), and sacks (7); tied for the most forced fumbles (2), fumbles recovered (1), and defensive touchdowns (1); tied for the second most interceptions (1); and adding six pass deflections. One could make an extended highlight reel from his 2022 season, but if you had to point to a single play that captures his talent and impact, a great example would be his pick-six during the South Division Championship.
Like Victor Bolden on the offensive side of the ball, Gates was called up to the NFL after the season and left a massive hole for the Stallions’ defense to fill. It will be hard for whoever plays next to Scooby Wright in 2023 to match Gates’ production. But that will be the single most important task for coaches Skip Holtz and John Chavis. Before considering some candidates for that job, let’s consider the Shark Dawg himself.
Scooby Wright III
If the worst offseason news for the Stallions defense was that DeMarquis Gates would not be back, the best news was that Scooby Wright would be. Wright flirted with joining the WWE but eventually decided to run it back with the Stallions—to the elation of Stallions fans everywhere. Wright, the former Nagurski Award winner as the nation’s top college defensive player, was the face of the Stallions and the entire USFL last year.
But his larger-than-life persona wasn’t just a charade—he backed it up with stellar play on the field. Despite missing three regular-season games due to injury (injuries he continued to battle into the postseason), Wright still finished tied with Gates for the most fumbles forced (1) and defensive touchdowns (1); tied for second in tackles (63) and interceptions (1); and added three tackles for loss, three sacks, and four pass deflections.
He was always in the middle of the action and proved to be the heart and soul of the Stallions defense. There could not have been a more fitting end to the season than Wright’s pick-six in the championship game that sealed the victory for the Stallions.
Scooby’s decision to return to the USFL for another year could prove to be the most pivotal piece of a Birmingham Stallions championship rerun. But if the Stallions are going to stay on top, they need to find someone to play alongside Scooby. Who could that be?
Other Returning Linebackers
For a hint on who will replace Gates, we can look to last season. In week five, the Stallions faced the Stars in what would prove to be a preview of the championship game. Wright was hurt and unable to play. In his place started Nate Holley. Unfortunately, Holley—the former CFL Most Outstanding Rookie—suffered a season-ending injury late in that game.
But before that, he filled in admirably in Scooby’s absence. In only five games, he still was able to register the third most tackles of any linebacker on the team after Gates and Wright (19). He also had a fumble recovery off a Scooby Wright strip-sack in week one when the Stallions lined up in a 4-3 and had him, Gates, and Wright on the field together.
I’d expect Holley to start alongside Wright in week one. If both can stay healthy, I think they can be an excellent linebacking duo for the Stallions. Holley, who had 100 tackles, one sack, and one interception in his rookie CFL season, will look to reproduce such a season this year.
After Brody Buck was recently released, the Birmingham Stallions only have one other returning linebacker: Quentin Poling. Poling was signed midseason last year and saw action in four games, recording six tackles. He will add further continuity to the Stallions linebacking unit.
Two new linebackers will compete with Holley for the chance to replace DeMarquis Gates: Rashad Smith and Elijah Sullivan. Smith was a three-year starter at Florida Atlantic where he had 316 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 15 passes deflected, seven interceptions, two forced fumbles, six fumbles recovered, and one touchdown. He was named Conference USA Honorable Mention twice. After college, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears. He has bounced around the NFL, spending time with the Cowboys, Eagles, 49ers, and, most recently, the Falcons.
Sullivan played college football at Kansas State. Over five seasons, he had 144 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, six passes deflected, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. He was named All-Big 12 Honorable Mention twice. After college, he signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent, and he has also spent time with the Chiefs and Jaguars.
As long as Scooby Wright can stay healthy, Stallions fans can rest assured knowing their star linebacker is holding down the middle of the field for them. But the lingering question is who will replace DeMarquis Gates. Victor Bolden left big shoes to fill on the offensive side of the ball, but several notable offseason signings make his absence seem less threatening to the Stallions’ success. The Stallions’ chances at repeating as champion may come down to who replaces Gates. The Stallions have a solid option in returning linebacker Nate Holley.
Although he may not prove to be as dynamic and game-changing as Gates, I think he could still be a sufficient replacement given how strong the Stallions’ defensive line and secondary should be. We could also see Smith or Sullivan eclipse Holley and take the starting spot beside Scooby. Time will tell, but this will be one of the main things to watch for when the season kicks off next week.