DC Defenders 2024 Midseason Evaluation UFL Michael Joseph

DC Defenders 2024 Midseason UFL Evaluation

As we approach the midway point of the UFL regular season, there is no better time than the present to sit back and evaluate how the DC Defenders have fared through five games.

The Defenders were dominated in week five by the St. Louis Battlehawks, 45-12, moving DC to 2-3 and third place in the XFL conference. The 33 point loss to St. Louis was the most lopsided defeat in DC Defenders team history, besting the 39-9 loss to the LA Wildcats in 2020.

What direction does the team go from here?

With much to break down and discuss, remember there are still five games left and the Defenders are just two games behind St. Louis and San Antonio. With the Brahams coming to town this week, along with playing the Battlehawks again, DC controls their own destiny heading down the stretch. As a reminder, the top two teams from each conference make the UFL playoffs.

Offense

Quarterbacks

Jordan Ta’amu is in the midst of his second season starting for the Defenders. Through the first half of the regular season, Ta’amu is 76/146 passing (52.1 comp%), with 888 yards, and seven touchdowns, along with five interceptions. Ta’amu has also been sacked eight times. As the captain of the offense, it’s been a less than ideal start for DC’s offense, especially when comparing it to last year. Through five games, the Defenders have scored 12, 23, 29, 18, and 12 points. Last season, 22, 18, 34, 32, and 28 points scored in the first five weeks. While Ta’amu has added value in the run game with 130 rushing yards on 25 attempts, it has not been enough for the Defenders offense to consistently move the ball.

Last season, Ta’amu was backed up by D’Eriq King, who is no longer with the team. King served a prominent role in DC’s offense and overall rushing attack last season. The Defenders used a two-quarterback system in 2023, where King would come in the game in situational instances, like red zone, short yardage, or option plays to keep the defense on their toes. The Defenders appear to be missing that element of surprise that kept them so dangerous on offense last season. That, coupled with the loss of RB Abram Smith to injury, has forced DC’s offense to become bland during the first five games of this season.

Deondre Francois and Jalan McClendon are the backup quarterbacks for DC, and have continued to alter QB2 positions throughout the season. Francois has played a handful of snaps for DC (due to a brief Ta’amu injury), but McClendon has yet to appear for the Defenders.

Running Backs

There has been no larger injury loss to a UFL team, than Abram Smith being out for DC.

As previously mentioned, the loss of Abram Smith to the Defenders offense has been just as brutal as most predicted it would be. The Defenders running backs room includes Cam’Ron Harris, ZyQuandre White, and Darius Hagans. Harris has handled most of the load for DC’s backfield, currently eighth in the league with 140 rushing yards on 40 attempts. The Defenders would undoubtedly like to raise the 2.9 yards per carry by Harris, which may be a reason we are seeing the heavy involvement of White in recent weeks. White brings more of a nasty streak to the run game for DC, and absorbs contact in a more polished way than Harris and Hagans. Look for White’s uptick in carries to only improve as the season moves along.

Wide Receivers

The wide receivers are the most polarizing positional group for DC’s offense, as there appears to be a wide collection of opinions on whether the Defenders wideouts are performing up to par through five weeks.

Former NC State product Kelvin Harmon leads the team in receiving with 17 receptions for 237 yards, and two touchdowns. Harmon has had a couple unfortunate drops through five games, but Harmon has proven to be a viable starting option outside for DC.

Ty Scott has been the Defenders second-most productive wide receiver, even in extremely limited time when you compare his snap count to production. Scott has 8 receptions for 152 yards, and a touchdown this season. His 19.0 YPC ranks third among receivers with a minimum of five catches. In comparison, Scott has 68 snaps to Harmon’s 253 snaps through five games. Offensive coordinator Fred Kaiss must find a way to get Ty Scott on the field more.

Another wideout that deserves more spotlight than he’s receiving is Chris Rowland, who regularly works out of the slot for DC. Rowland took over slot duties earlier this season when Keke Coutee went down with an injury that sidelined him for multiple games. With Coutee now healthy, the Defenders seem to be struggling with working him and Rowland together in successful packages. Nonetheless, Rowland has been a spark plug for DC at certain times this season, he currently has seven catches for 122 yards, and two touchdowns.

It’ll be interesting to see how Vyncint Smith continues to be incorporated into DC’s offense. Defenders brass is clearly fond of Smith and his abilities, the question becomes; Can those abilities translate into output for a struggling offense?

Tight Ends

After losing Briley Moore to injured reserve following his week three injury against Arlington, the Defenders have had to embrace the next man up mentality in the tight ends room.

Alex Ellis and Kaden Smith have emerged as the two to handle Moore’s missing snaps, as Smith saw an increase in production this past week with three receptions for 25 yards. Neither Ellis or Smith pose the same vertical receiving threat that Moore does, but they definitely bring value underneath and in the run game for DC as a blocker.

Time will tell if the Defenders decide to involve recently re-signed tight end Ben Bresnahan in the active lineup. His SEC background at Vanderbilt may be worth giving a shot as the season progresses.

Offensive Line

Heading into this season, the offensive line had three starters returning from last season’s 9-1 team, including Liam Fornadel, Michael Maietti, and D’Marcus Hayes. All three continue to be starting linemen for DC, but the on-field product has not been quite the same with two newcomers joining the big men up front. Yasir Durant and Jahmir Ross-Johnson have been the starters for the most part through five weeks, with Durant playing left guard and Johnson switching from right and left tackle. While the team has only given up eight sacks in five games, the rushing attack has been far from what it was, and the points scored have reflected that.

Otherwise, Fornadel continues to be the best offensive lineman on the Defenders for the second consecutive season. NFL teams should be clamoring for the 24-year old guard from JMU at season’s end.

Highly doubtful there will be any changes to the offensive line, but whether it’s schematical or player performance based, changes must be made.

Defense

Defensive Line

With Davin Bellamy returning, and Trent Harris arriving from Houston, who would have expected Malik Fisher to be the talk of town through the first half of the UFL season?

Fisher has five sacks in five games for the Defenders, after finishing last season with zero sacks.

Derick Roberson has been another very productive edge rusher for DC through five weeks, currently sitting on 3.5 sacks. Compared to last year, the rotation rate amongst defensive linemen has increased greatly for DC, mostly due to the plethora of talent at the position.

Meanwhile, the start for Trent Harris in DC has been less than ideal. Harris was the first round pick in the XFL Dispersal Draft during the offseason, and has been placed at the bottom of the depth chart in recent weeks for DC. Harris has half a sack so far this year, on 168 snaps. When Bellamy announced his return to the team prior to training camp, many thought it would be a gamechanger pairing him with Trent Harris. Bellamy has not registered a sack yet this year, but has been solid against the run.

Losing Joe Wallace to the IR was/is a stinger for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Wallace was a returning member of the defense and was relied on as a leader in the trenches.

Linebackers

The rotation of starting linebackers for DC has varied greatly, especially in the past three to four weeks. Anthony Hines has been superb in his last two starts for DC, leading the team in tackles in both games. Hines has been forced to step up with Bernard’s hamstring injury and Northrup’s recent lack of production. Momo Sanogo is another inside linebacker that has seen a bump in snaps due to Bernard and Northrup’s situation. Sanogo plays with his hair on fire every play, and DC Gregg Williams has shown a soft spot for players with that energy.

With Bernard potentially set to return this week against San Antonio, it will be interesting to see how the defensive coaches handle the rotation.

Secondary

The secondary is another group that has undergone plenty of changes from last season, and continues to go through adjustments heading into week six, most notably with the release of safety DJ Swearinger.

The Defenders defense had a knack for creating turnovers last season, especially with the help of the secondary. Through five games this season, the Defenders defense has zero interceptions on opposing quarterbacks. An unacceptable stat for a group that includes multiple former first round picks and NFL veterans.

With cornerback Gareon Conley penciled in as a regular starter on the outside for DC, it will be compelling to see if fellow former first round pick, Deandre Baker, is soon slotted in as a regular starter for DC. Baker has made a couple impact plays in limited time, including a chase down forced fumble against Houston in week two, which completely shifted momentum of the game.

DC’s defense will need to create more turnovers to give their limited offense a chance, and they will have an opportunity this week against San Antonio’s gunslinger, QB Quinten Dormady.

Back to the release of DJ Swearinger, it is clear the team is moving in another direction at safety. During Swearinger’s Instagram video where he announced his release, he mentioned the team wanting to get younger on the backend. Fans will have to wait and see if that means a new addition to the roster, or if Montae Nicholson/Deontay Anderson will replace Swearinger.

Special Teams

As we reflect halfway through the season, kicker Matthew McCrane may be the most consistent asset to the Defenders team.

Up until last week vs. St Louis, McCrane was a perfect 10/10 on field goals entering the game. Even with his one miss, McCrane continues to have the highest conversion rate in the league (90.9%).

LS Trae Berry continues to be the point of worry for Defenders and UFL fans alike. While the field goal unit has been solid, the Defenders punt team has undergone their fair share of issues. Punter Paxton Brooks, in his first season with DC, has had two punts blocked, and a snap sail over his head for a safety. All in just five games. Special teams has proven to be a crucial part of every UFL game this season, meaning DC must dissect the issue and get rid of it promptly.

Kickoff and punt returns have been much improved since Chris Rowland took over return duties. Rowland is second in the UFL in all-purpose yards this season (638 yards), just one spot behind Battlehawks WR Darrius Shepherd.

What are your thoughts on this DC Defenders team midway through the year? Which players did I overlook? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!