We are already at the halfway point of the USFL 2023 season. With week six quickly approaching, the playoff picture is heating up, as the parity between both divisions is strong.
This can be attributed to the balance across the league, when it comes to the talent – and coaching – that every organization possesses.
Let’s take a look at who’s stood out above the rest through the first five weeks of action.
Quarterback: McLeod Bethel-Thompson
Clearly, there’s a quarterback who has dominated this season, and he plays for the New Orleans Breakers. McLeod Bethel-Thompson has had quite the journey in professional football, most recently playing for (and winning) two Grey Cups with the Toronto Argonauts.
Since teaming up again with Head Coach John DeFilippo, Bethel-Thompson has been on fire. The two have previous experience together, both being a part of the Philadelphia Eagles organization several years ago.
This is exactly why John DeFilippo recruited McLeod Bethel-Thompson to the @USFLBreakers.
This chemistry has translated over into the USFL, as MBT and the Breakers hold a league-best 4-1 record. McLeod currently leads the USFL with 1,322 yards through the air, averaging 7.6 YPA. In addition, he’s thrown for seven touchdowns, which ties him in second place with Kenji Bahar (Houston).
McLeod Bethel-Thompson has been stellar, finding a rhythm week in and week out. Without his leadership, odds are that New Orleans wouldn’t be nearly as dominant as they have been.
Honorable Mentions: Case Cookus (Philadelphia), Alex McGough (Birmingham)
Running Backs: Wes Hills, Mark Thompson
The backfields in the USFL this season have been outstanding. Starting with Wes Hills, he’s been electrifying since making his Breakers debut in week two. Despite only playing four games, Hills leads the USFL in almost every single rushing category.
What a day it was for Wes Hills in his #USFL debut:
What makes Hills so valuable is his ability to run, catch, and block. It’s not very often that you see a back perform the way he has. Without a doubt, Wes will be getting plenty of NFL looks when the USFL season concludes.
Mark Thompson has to be given a lot of credit for what he’s accomplished this season. After missing two weeks with an injury, he’s been absolutely sensational for Curtis Johnson and the Houston Gamblers.
In three games, he’s rushed for 292 yards, and is tied with Wes Hills with eight rushing touchdowns. Houston’s offense has looked like a completely different animal with Mark in the backfield. In addition, he’s averaging 5.8YPC, which is an incredible number.
Honorable Mentions: Reggie Corbin (Michigan), Darius Victor (New Jersey)
Speaking of QB instability, Joe Walker has had to deal with a revolving door in Michigan. Even though Josh Love and Carson Strong have been quite inconsistent, Walker has been on a tear through season two.
As we predicted before the season began, Joe was primed to have a breakout year – and he has. Walker has 253 receiving yards so far, alongside two touchdowns. Right now, he’s averaging 12 yards per reception. Walker has been an integral piece to Mike Nolan’s offense, and will continue to be an important player down the stretch.
The former Houston Texan has found a home in Birmingham. Interestingly enough, Davion was slated to be a Houston Roughneck in the XFL this season. He was released, and eventually settled down in the USFL.
Since coming over to Birmingham, Davion has been a revelation for Skip Holtz and their offense. After Marlon Williams tore his achilles in week one, the team needed someone to step up.
That player turned out to be Davis, who’s recorded 290 yards and three scores through five weeks. With this type of production, expect Davion to turn some heads in the NFL world soon.
Honorable Mentions: Corey Coleman (Philadelphia), Lee Morris (New Orleans), Cam Echols-Luper (New Jersey)
Tight End: Sage Surratt
There’s one tight end who has been virtually unstoppable in the USFL, and that is Sage Surratt. Sage won the USFL Championship last season with Birmingham, but didn’t see much playing time in 2022.
After a stint with the Los Angeles Chargers, Surratt signed with the Breakers. New Orleans desperately needed a replacement for Sal Cannella, but it turned out they got that – and even more – in Sage.
Sage Surratt is proving to be such an important piece of the @USFLBreakers offense.
Surratt leads the entire league with 387 receiving yards, almost 100 more than the next man up (Davion Davis). He’s a jack of all trades for New Orleans, doing everything at a high level. With how he’s played so far, it would be shocking if he didn’t get another NFL opportunity in the fall.
Honorable Mentions: Jace Sternberger (Birmingham), Braedon Bowman (New Jersey)
The New Jersey Generals boast an extraordinary ground game, and it’s largely because of how efficient their offensive line unit plays the game. Just like last season, they’re a well oiled machine who operate fluidly.
Philadelphia’s protection has been rough in 2023, but Shamarius Gilmore is one of PFF’s highest ranked lineman, doing his job well throughout the season.
Avery Gennessy has been one of spring football’s top OL’s in recent history, having another spectacular season for the Houston Gamblers. There’s a reason why Mark Thompson and T.J. Pledger have been so effective this year: look no further than Avery and the offensive line.
The same goes for New Orleans, as Wes Hills has been unstoppable, largely due to the efforts of their offensive linemen.
DE Breeland Speaks | Michigan Panthers
Breeland Speaks is having one of the most dominant years we’ve ever seen in spring football. It’s reminiscent of former Houston Gambler Chris Odom, who won DPOY just a season ago.
Breeland Speaks is having a monster outing for the @USFLPanthers today.
Speaks leads the USFL with 6.5 sacks, wreaking havoc on offensive lines week in and week out. Michigan’s been playing poor football as of late, but Breeland has been one of the lone bright spots. With this type of play, Breeland is absolutely headed back to the NFL after this season. Head Coach Mike Nolan said of Speaks that “he wants it more”. Clearly, he’s been a major factor on the defensive side of the football.
DE Adam Rodriguez | Philadelphia Stars
Adam Rodriguez has not gotten enough credit for what he’s done with the Stars this season. Despite Philadelphia’s struggles, Rodriguez has consistently been a pillar on defense, with 17 tackles and two sacks on the season. While the numbers might not pop off the charts, the little things he does make him a “glue guy” for this unit.
DT Toby Johnson | New Jersey Generals
The veteran is getting the job done in the trenches. Toby Johnson has been spectacular up front for New Jersey, effectively shutting down the run with his big frame. Without Johnson’s leadership and size, the Generals would not have the same presence on the line.
Pittsburgh’s front four has been stellar, and it’s largely because of Olive Sagapolu leading the charge. He’s got 16 total tackles on the season, alongside four sacks. Boogie Roberts also deserves a lot of credit, as both Roberts and Sagapolu have been a sensational duo.
Honorable Mentions: Jeff McCulloch (Memphis), Ronheen Bingham (Houston), Greg Reaves (Memphis), Anree Saint-Amour (New Orleans)
Kyahva Tezino | Pittsburgh Maulers
Tezino has been a monster on defense for Pittsburgh, stepping up in a major way since Reuben Foster went down. He’s second in the USFL with 46 tackles, doing a little bit of everything for Jarren Horton’s unit.
Frank Ginda | Michigan Panthers
Frank the tank is doing it again, creating nightmares for opposing offenses every single week. He’s got 43 tackles and two interceptions, flying around all over the place to make plays. He’s consistently been one of the best linebackers in the spring football arena, and is proving that notion once again in 2023.
34 tackles, one sack, and one interception – what more can you ask out of Vontae Diggs? He’s been one of the best linebackers in coverage as well, utilizing his versatility for New Orleans all season long. Expect big things out of Vontae down the stretch.
Chris Orr | New Jersey Generals
Leading the USFL in tackles with 51 is Chris Orr, who has turned things up to another level in 2023. While he was excellent a season ago, Orr looks even faster, smarter, and more in control on the football field this year. New Jersey’s defense wouldn’t be nearly the same unit without Orr in the lineup.
Mark Gilbert has always taken the toughest assignment on defense for Pittsburgh – and has been outstanding. He’s got two interceptions on the year, alongside ten passes defensed. A great example of his stellar play was in week five, taking the Joe Walker challenge – and shutting him down.
One of the most underrated defenders in the USFL this season is Nevelle Clarke. He’s been remarkable, torching receivers and quarterbacks throughout the first few weeks of action. So far he’s racked up 14 tackles and an interception. QB’s typically don’t throw his way, due to his outstanding coverage.
CB Josh Butler | Michigan Panthers
Not many have done it better than Josh Butler. He’s one of PFF’s top graded defenders, always taking on the opponent’s top playmakers. Butler’s been a key piece to Michigan’s defensive scheme, with 14 tackles and several PD. If he keeps playing at this level, he will certainly be an All-USFL corner at the end of the season.
S Arnold Tarpley III | Pittsburgh Maulers
Arnold Tarpley is one of spring football’s premier defensive backs. He’s been excellent for the Pittsburgh Maulers, with 24 tackles and an interception. Tarpley’s been all over the place in his career, playing for the Memphis Express (AAF), Generals (TSL), and now the Maulers (USFL). No matter where he’s been, he’s performed exceptionally well.
Another underrated Philadelphia Star is Cody Brown, aka “The Hitman”. Brown has 34 tackles in 2023, alongside a forced fumble and a recovery. Like so many other defensive players in the league, Cody’s done a bit of everything for Philadelphia. His rich history at this level has only gained more depth in the USFL this season.
Honorable mentions: Amani Dennis (Philadelphia), D.J. Daniel (New Jersey), Shalom Luani (New Jersey), Keith Gipson Jr. (Pittsburgh)
K Luis Aguilar | Philadelphia Stars
This one was a tossup between Luis Aguilar, and Breakers kicker Matt Coghlin. Honestly, it could go either way. Coghlin has been perfect. Meanwhile, Aguilar set a professional record in week five, going 8/8 from distance, including a walkoff 55 yard game winner.
Who needs a kicker? Luis Aguilar of the USFL's Philadelphia Stars went 8/8 on FGs on Sunday and accounted for all 24 points in a win over the NJ Generals.
Aguilar made kicks from 56, 55, 51, 49, 42, 36, 27 & 22.
Luis has been one of the USFL’s most consistent specialists since joining the Stars in 2022, and is showcasing just how excellent of a kicker he can be in the league this season.
P Brock Miller | New Jersey Generals
Brock Miller, once again, is probably the top punter in the USFL. His 80 yard punt in 2022 was no fluke – he’s got a cannon for a leg. Not only that, but his accuracy on high arcing kicks allows New Jersey to consistently set up their opponents with far from ideal field position. He’s averaging 40.2 yards per punt, with a net average of 37.0.
LS Ryan Navarro | Philadelphia Stars
You have to give Ryan Navarro a lot of credit. Luis’ sensational week five would have never happened without the consistency of Navarro’s snaps. He’s been spot on through the first half of the season, and we should expect nothing less out of Ryan in the next several weeks.
KR Deon Cain | Birmingham Stallions
This one was pretty obvious. Cain has two kickoffs returned for a touchdown this season, in back-to-back weeks. While he’s missed some time with an illness, Deon Cain is absolutely the front runner in this category.
Hennie has been a spark for the Pittsburgh Maulers all year, serving as a valuable WR alongside being an elite punt returner. He took a punt to the house in week one against New Orleans, and has been quite dangerous all season long.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Rowland (Philadelphia), Matt Coghlin (New Orleans), Chris Blewitt (Pittsburgh), Hunter Niswander (Houston), Brandon Wright (Memphis)
At the end of the day, there are so many USFL athletes that could be nominated for these awards. The good news is that we’re only halfway through the season, so there is plenty of time for others to prove themselves.
It’s been a pleasure watching the USFL so far this season, with so much talent abounding at every position. The league has done an excellent job of replacing some of the key pieces who moved onto the NFL, while providing others with the opportunity to pursue that same goal.