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Houston Roughnecks Defensive Line: Best In The UFL?

With the USFL and XFL merging into the UFL, the remaining eight teams – including the Houston Roughnecks – have loaded up on talent. The amount of high quality football players spread across these eight franchises is, quite honestly, astounding.

A group of athletes who hasn’t gotten enough attention sits on the Houston Roughnecks – their defensive line.

Now, I’d like to preface this piece by saying: every defensive line in the UFL is stacked. It’s going to be tough to run against any of these teams. Something else to note is the fact that some of these players will be getting cut during training camp, which is hard to believe. Each one deserves a roster spot.

With all of that in mind – the Houston Roughnecks might just feature the scariest line in the entire league. General Manager Lionel Vital, alongside Head Coach Curtis Johnson & the rest of the staff, have out done themselves with the additions this offseason.

Let’s take a look at who the team currently rosters, and the impact they might have with Houston this UFL season.

Interior Linemen

Right off the bat, a name that immediately sticks out is DT Toby Johnson. This guy needs zero introduction, having served as an All-USFL playmaker for two straight seasons in New Jersey. Across that span, he’s posted 77 tackles and five sacks, alongside an incredible interception.

Johnson was selected by the Roughnecks in the Dispersal Draft. He brings veteran leadership to the room, having spent over a decade in the NFL, XFL, and USFL. With the amount of help around him on this team, expect Johnson to have an even more productive season in 2024. He could seriously have a career year in this lineup, which is hard to believe considering how dominant he’s already been. Toby was no doubt one of the most sought after free agents, and now lands with the Roughnecks for the UFL season.

Houston also picked up Olive Sagapolu in the draft, who formerly was with the Pittsburgh Maulers. Olive was tremendous in 2023, with 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks to his name. After making it to the USFL Championship with Pittsburgh, Sagapolu spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL preseason.

Sagapolu is starter material, but surprisingly might come off the bench with the amount of talent this line possesses.

The reason why Olive could end up coming off the bench is Keonte Schad. Keonte played with the New Orleans Breakers in 2023, bursting onto the scene as one of the top linemen in the entire USFL. He posted 25 tackles, 9 TFL, and 7.5 sacks (2nd in USFL) last year. Schad is a young star who could take an even larger leap in the UFL – one would expect his production to reflect that of the talent around him.

Speaking of the Breakers, the Roughnecks also selected Reggie Howard Jr. in the dispersal draft. Reggie was an All-USFL lineman with the Tampa Bay Bandits/New Orleans Breakers in 2022, and continued a strong campaign in 2023 with 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks – starting in all ten regular season games.

Throughout the draft process, Houston secured Ethan Westbrooks and Glen Logan. Logan, interestingly enough, was with the XFL’s Roughnecks last year and was a solid piece for a playoff team. Meanwhile, Westbrooks made an impact in the USFL with Pittsburgh and Michigan. Both bring depth to the line and should make it difficult for personnel to make decisions in training camp.

Jeffrey Johnson is an intriguing prospect given his background in the USFL. He was a rookie draft pick for Houston, and then signed with the team during the season. He saw action in a few games with the Gamblers, posting four total tackles. Johnson had an excellent college career with 159 tackles and nine sacks, but will need to have an impressive showing in camp in order to make this roster.

Edge Rushers

When we look at the edge rushers on this team, it gets even crazier. The Roughnecks (Gamblers) have brought back Chris Odom – who was the USFL’s defensive player of the year in 2022. He was sensational through ten games, leading the league with 41 tackles and 12.5 sacks.

Odom signed with the Cleveland Browns and impressed in preseason, but tore his ACL and has since been recovering. Now, he’s back in the spring football scene, looking to establish his dominance once again. Chris should be a lock to make this roster – as long as he gets back to pre-injury form.

Speaking of All-USFL talent, Adam Rodriguez has landed with Houston. Rodriguez doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done in the USFL in back to back seasons. He holds the modern league record for most sacks all-time with 15, and has been a consistent force for the Philadelphia Stars across that span.

Adam is a versatile edge rusher who can also drop into coverage when needed. No backfield is safe when Rodriguez is rushing the quarterback.

A couple of returning members are Ronheen Bingham and Isaiah Chambers. The two were a phenomenal duo for the Gamblers in the USFL, and are primed to make a similar impact this year. Chambers is a major retention, as he led the league with 11 tackles for loss in 2023. Bingham also wrecked havoc with 25 tackles and four sacks.

Bryson Young and Reggie Walker, while technically categorized as linebackers, are two guys who can also make a difference on the perimeter of the line as well. Bryson, in particular, has done some excellent work with the New Jersey Generals the past couple of seasons.

Jake Hlava is a name I’m excited to watch in training camp. He was an offseason addition to Houston, and is one of the lesser known players on the team. He had an excellent career at Grand Valley State, posting 91 tackles and nine sacks. While it’s been a struggle for Hlava to stick on a roster at the pro level, he’s got undeniable talent and could bring some depth and firepower off the bench for the Roughnecks this year.

Training Camp Ahead

With players reporting to Training Camp on February 23rd-24th, the competition is going to be very intense across the board – especially for the defensive linemen. This group features so many athletes who have earned All-USFL awards, and/or have spent legitimate time in the NFL.

Something to note – while the defensive line has a ton of experience – the secondary is quite the opposite. Lionel Vital brought in plenty of new talent, but most of those additions are new to the pro football scene. It’ll be intriguing to watch how this all plays out during the season. If their young defensive backs can’t adjust to the pace of the UFL quick enough, expect this team to lean heavily on their front seven on defense.

As previously mentioned, the defensive lines for all eight teams are very strong. A couple others that come to mind would be DC and Birmingham, who have some of the top prospects in all of spring football (i.e. Davin Bellamy, Tim Ward, Trent Harris, Boogie Roberts, TJ Barnes, etc. with the Defenders).

That said, Houston’s depth goes so deep that we’ll likely see some legitimate starters get cut. It’s crazy to think about, but it’s the reality of the situation. In the USFL, the Gamblers leaned on their defense for large chunks of the last two seasons – and one would expect the same scenario to unfold in the UFL with the newly rebranded Roughnecks.

What are your thoughts on the Houston Roughnecks defensive line heading towards UFL training camp? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!

Fubo