How Steve Kazor Transformed The Michigan Panthers Franchise

How Steve Kazor Transformed The Michigan Panthers Franchise

It feels like a lifetime ago when the Michigan Panthers made their return to pro football, led by Head Coach Jeff Fisher, and former Michigan QB Shea Patterson. At the time, that duo was hyped up to be one of the most potent in the newly resurrected USFL.

As we all know by now, Michigan struggled mightily that season. They finished with a 2-8 record – and their only two wins were against the 1-9 Pittsburgh Maulers. The lofty expectations set prior to the season were not lived up to by any means.

The energy certainly shifted in 2023. Fisher stepped down from his position – and Mike Nolan, the long-time NFL Coach, found a home in the spring football scene. Michigan won only four games last year, but it was enough to clinch a playoff berth, where they lost to Pittsburgh.

However, the Michigan Panthers have looked like a completely different football team this season. They’ve got seven wins in just nine weeks of action, surpassing the amount of wins they had in the last two years combined.

While there are plenty of reasons for why Michigan is seeing success this year, one of the less talked about factors – their secret kryptonite you could say – is General Manager Steve Kazor.

His guidance behind the scenes has been pivotal for Michigan throughout their existence – but has taken an especially important place this year.

USFL 2022-2023

Kazor has been with the Panthers for the last three years. He began his tenure as the Director of Player Personnel – which morphed into the “General Manager” role he holds today.

After what was a disappointing 2022 season, it was clear that Michigan had to make some personnel changes in 2023. Now, a pretty significant shakeup happened during the offseason, with Coach Fisher departing from the league.

Once Mike Nolan and his coaching staff got settled in, the Panthers made some key signings that changed the course of this team. Defensively, in particular, is where Michigan saw quite a bit of growth. Kazor made several major additions, including: DE Breeland Speaks, DB Josh Butler, DB Levonta Taylor, and DE Levi Bell (USFL College Draft) to name a few.

Late in the season, when Michigan needed a quarterback, Michigan signed E.J. Perry. He ended up taking over as the starter, leading the team to a postseason berth in an upset win in week ten.

Even though Michigan lost in the playoffs, and only won four games in 2023, it felt like the team had taken a big step in the right direction. They boasted quite a bit of talent in 2023, but simply didn’t execute consistently, resulting in their 4-6 record.

The offseason would prove exactly that, as 11 Panthers players would sign NFL contracts. Of those 11, six would return for 2024.

Impressive Offseason Additions

2024 has written an entirely different story for the Michigan Panthers. Those who weren’t paying attention to the franchise may have been surprised; but, those who watched the moves Kazor, Nolan, & Co. had made over the last year – it felt like it was inevitable.

Starting with the offense, Michigan revamped position groups in the right way. They brought back E.J. Perry, but also added Danny Etling to the QB room, which proved itself to be a crucial move given Perry’s injury in week four this year.

The USFL-XFL players that were added through the Dispersal Drafts are all stellar choices, fitting Marcel Bellefeuille’s system perfectly. In the running back room, Wes Hills and Matt Colburn have proven to be two of the best backs in the UFL. With former All-USFL RB Reggie Corbin retiring from football – it was extremely important that Michigan found the right replacements, and they did. Not to mention, Michigan kept their best O-Line pieces, while adding playmakers such as Jake Burton (Stars), Cohl Cabral (Stallions), and Chim Okorafor.

Defensively, Michigan was able to retain Breeland Speaks and Frank Ginda, while doing what they needed to do to improve. They brought back safety Kai Nacua, who has proven to be one of the best DB’s in the UFL this season. At the same time, Bryce Torneden, Nate Brooks, Keith Gipson Jr., Kedrick Whitehead, and plenty of others were brought in, and many have earned starting roles. An elite Panthers defense from 2023 has been even better in 2024.

How about the Special Teams unit? Michigan decided to rebrand that entire room – with Kazor bringing in Jake Bates, someone who was on absolutely no one’s radar in this scene, and he’s taken the league by storm with three 60+ yard field goals. Brock Miller and Jordan Ober came over from the New Jersey Generals, and both have proven to be two of the best in all of spring football.

Across the board, Michigan got better at every position, which was largely due to the expertise of Steve Kazor. Of course, the entire staff alongside Nolan played an important role as well, but it starts with Steve.

The Genius Of Steve Kazor In 2024

What hasn’t been spoken about enough is the way Kazor has attracted top tier talent to this team not just in the offseason, but during the UFL season. Michigan has dealt with countless injuries, meaning that free agents have had to be signed from week to week. Kazor has navigated these rough waters to perfection, crafting the Panthers into an organization that is now positioned to make a Championship run.

In week one, WR John Hightower went down with an ankle injury. He was poised to be a big part of the offense, but never saw his full potential unfortunately. Kazor immediately brought in Siaosi Mariner as a replacement – and now, Mariner is the second leading receiver on the team.

He’s been tremendous for Michigan, and has shown up in countless clutch moments despite not being with the Panthers during Training Camp. With leading receiver Marcus Simms banged up, Siaosi has showed up.

In week two, Devin Ross got hurt and missed five weeks on injured reserve, so Michigan brought back Samson Nacua who was with the team in camp. He’s been excellent since his return, and has remained on the roster.

Then, week four had a moment that would change the course of this entire season. Starting QB E.J. Perry went down, which led to Kazor bringing in Bryce Perkins. This story is fascinating, because Perkins was with the Los Angeles Rams at around the same time Steve was.

Since joining the Panthers, Bryce Perkins has looked like the best quarterback in that room. His mobility and athleticism are unmatched in the UFL, except for maybe Adrian Martinez in Birmingham. Perkins just led the Panthers on a double-digit comeback in Houston, posting outstanding numbers in the second half after sitting the first two quarters.

Over the past couple of weeks, Kazor has continued to sign quality talent to this roster. Injuries and other circumstances have led to Bumper Pool, London Harris, Terry Wright, and Levi Bell signing to the team. Sadly, Bell will not play for Michigan this year, dealing with an injury that happened prior to him even playing a snap.

Regardless, this team continues to get better and better with each week – despite all the injuries they’ve faced. Head Coach Mike Nolan had high praise for what Steve has done with this Michigan Panthers football team, and the way he’s shaped this organization:

“Our roster starts with Steve, and he’s done an outstanding job. There’s no question. After that, I’d have to credit the coaches for using the talent he’s brought in. But Steve has done an amazing job, and it started really a year ago after we played the playoff game against Pittsburgh. He was going right into the process [after the game]. I can’t say enough about Steve and what he’s done for the team. The guys really enjoy Steve, he’s a lot of fun to be around as well. He’s brought in a lot of players that are not just talented, but are easy to coach.”

Final Thoughts

Stories like the one featured here are exactly why spring football is so important. Steve Kazor has been able to find a niche in this scene, continuing his professional career in evaluating talent – and, helping develop it as well. The UFL exists to develop these athletes and help them achieve their goals, something Michigan has executed at a high level over the past years.

With a 7-2 record, the Michigan Panthers will now focus on taking down the mighty Birmingham Stallions. Michigan’s road to the Championship isn’t easy, as they face off against Birmingham in back to back weeks.

That said, with the way they’re playing – and with the leadership that is currently in place – it feels like Michigan is on the cusp of something greater than just a playoff berth. Even if they don’t win a Championship in 2024, the future is brighter than ever. This staff, from top to bottom, is one of the UFL’s elite. Without the efforts of Kazor, this team would not be in the same position.

What are your thoughts on what Steve Kazor has produced in Michigan so far as their General Manager? Will the Panthers win the UFL Championship this year? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!