The USFL featured incredible special teams talent this season, some of which hasn’t gotten enough attention. Across the board, the league saw an uptick in the quality of play compared to a season ago, and special teams played a major role in exactly that.
During a time where the NFL is restricting what special teams can and cannot do, the USFL provided dozens of players with a chance to prove themselves at this level.
Let’s take a look at several athletes who have a chance to make the leap from the USFL to NFL in the offseason, and recap their successful 2023 campaigns.
Derrick Dillon was a valuable weapon for Todd Haley all season long, and provided fans with fast-paced entertainment throughout the year. Dillon turned out to be one of the best kick returners in the USFL, setting a professional record by returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a score in week six.
In addition to his special teams brilliance, Derrick was a solid target for Cole Kelley as a receiver. He came up clutch in week seven against Houston, with a late touchdown that put the team in front for good.
What in the world is going on in the @USFL today? Just one play later, Cole Kelley buys enough time to find Derrick Dillon, who leaves everyone in the dust.
Dillon averaged 32.7 yards per return, with nine of those going for more than 30 yards. With how productive Derrick Dillon was in multiple facets of the game, it would be no surprise to see him garner NFL interest this offseason.
Leading the USFL in total kick return yards (859) is Joshua Simmons, who had an excellent year for Pittsburgh. In fact, he was nominated to the All-USFL Special Teams team due to his performances. Simmons averaged 30.7 YPR, and took one to the house in week seven against Philadelphia.
JOSHUA. SIMMONS. What a massive special teams play for the @USFLMaulers, as they take the lead after an 88 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, courtesy of @TM7_JS7.
Similar to Dillon, Josh Simmons did multiple things well for the Maulers. He came into his own as a WR down the stretch, filling in where needed as the team dealt with injuries.
After his All-USFL campaign, expect Simmons to see some NFL looks. His speed and agility resembles that of KaVontae Turpin, the former USFL MVP. Before then, though, he has a chance to play for a USFL title, as the Pittsburgh Maulers won the North Division this year.
Cain proved himself to be a big-time playmaker this season for the Stallions. He returned not one, but two kickoffs for touchdowns this year, in back-to-back weeks. Deon averaged 26.7 YPR for Birmingham.
The former Clemson standout was strong in the receiving game as well. Deon Cain played a major role in Skip Holtz’ offense when healthy, showcasing his speed and route running abilities through many phases of the game.
The @USFLStallions are now in full control of this ball game. Alex McGough drops a dime deep to Deon Cain, who secures it for the score, and Birmingham leads 17-9.
Terry Wright had an outstanding year for the Stars, providing a spark for their offense on so many occasions. He stepped up for Bart Andrus, who lost Chris Rowland midseason to an injury. Wright was phenomenal, igniting a clutch week five win against the New Jersey Generals with multiple returns past midfield.
Wright averaged 31.7 YPR, racking up 760 return yards on the season. In addition, he was a valuable WR in the wake of multiple injuries and absences. In week ten, he got the scoring started with a sensational catch in the back of the end zone, displaying elite athleticism.
Isiah Hennie was, without a doubt, the best punt returner in the USFL this season. After taking a punt to the endzone against New Orleans in week one, every single team was afraid to kick it his way. Regardless, Hennie led the USFL in punt return yards, with 290.
The All-USFL kicker had a remarkable campaign in the USFL this year. Luis Aguilar joined Philadelphia halfway through the 2022 season, and turned out to be one of the most reliable kickers in the league. 2023 was no different, with Aguilar knocking through 86% of his kicks this year.
He received national attention for the stellar performance he had in week five, where he single handedly willed the team to victory. Luis went 8/8, setting a professional record with 338 total yards between each attempt. The walk off game winner was perfect from 55 yards out, showcasing his confidence and poise during a high pressure scenario.
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.
At every level, Luis was special. He went 4/5 from beyond 50 yards in 2023, with the only miss coming up just short on the crossbar. Aguilar has generated plenty of NFL interest, and rightfully so. He’s well on his way to the next stage.
If you’re searching for efficiency, look no further than Matt Coghlin. The former MSU kicker was excellent for New Orleans, missing only one field goal the entire season. Coghlin finished the season making 18/19 kicks, including 2/2 from 50+.
Matt’s leg has been a factor for the Breakers all year long, displaying he belongs on the professional stage. Without a doubt, Coghlin is kicking himself into an NFL opportunity, by performing at such a high level in the USFL.
After what was a rocky start for Alex Kessman in the USFL – which included being benched in week three – he turned out to be one of the league’s elite specialists. In week eight, Kessman went 6/6, as Memphis took down New Jersey due to his prolific leg.
Kessman made 21 straight field goal attempts. Yes, you read that right. He was eager to prove himself after missing a game, and went on a hot streak that didn’t slow down at all. From weeks 4-9, he didn’t miss a single kick. Kessman finished the season 22/25, but was near perfect down the stretch.
Brandon Aubrey: 14/15 FGM | 93% | 14/14 from 20-49 Nic Sciba: 12/13 FGM | 92% | 2/3 from 50+ Chris Blewitt: 21/25 | 84% | 17/18 from 20-49 League Stat: Kickers combined for 86% on field goal attempts in 2023.
To be quite honest, Brock Miller was snubbed from the All-USFL list this season. Miller was sensational, and when one breaks down the individual stats, it’s clear that Brock was top tier.
He finished the season with an average of 43.1 yards per punt, alongside a 37.9 net average. At first glance, he’s in the middle of the pack in those categories.
But, where Miller shines is the volume of punts inside the 20. Brock led the USFL with 16 punts inside the opponents 20 yard line. What makes this stat so impressive is that only 2.8% of Brock’s attempts resulted in touchbacks. That’s ridiculous. Not to mention, eight of those punts went inside the ten. Efficiency at its finest.
Colby Wadman ended up on the All-USFL Special Teams team this year, which was well deserved. Wadman had a solid year, averaging 48.7 YPP; with a net average of 41.7. In fact, over 50% of his punts went for 50 yards or more, displaying his strong leg.
Wadman managed to pin opponents inside their ten yard line four times, with a touchback rate of 18.5%. With the Birmingham Stallions primed for another title run, Wadman has an opportunity to go back-to-back.
Even though Hunter Niswander joined the Houston Gamblers a few weeks into the season, he turned out to be one of the top punters in the USFL. For those familiar with his game, this was no surprise.
Hunter was an All-XFL punter in 2020 for the DC Defenders, and eventually made his way to the Dallas Cowboys. He thrived in Dallas, averaging 47.6 YPP. Unfortunately, an injury ended his NFL tenure short. The USFL was his first professional action in well over a year, and he excelled.
Niswander averaged 45.8 YPP in 2023, with a net average of 39.9. 11 of his 27 punts went inside the 20, with a low 7.4% touchback rate. In addition, 11 punts were upwards of 50 yards. After such a successful campaign, one has to imagine that Hunter will be back in an NFL camp sooner than later.
The spring football journeyman found a home with the Pittsburgh Maulers this year. Mengel has had one of his most consistent years yet, performing quite well for Ray Horton’s squad. Matt averaged 42.9 YPP, with a net average of 36.5.
What those numbers won’t tell you, though, is the proficiency with which he punted inside the 20. 38% of his attempts (15) were in that category, with Mengel also booting 11 punts more than 50 yards. His 83 yard punt in week nine was incredible, being the longest of the USFL season for any punter.
Matt White: 44.9 YPP | 37% inside the 20 | 16.7% TB Brandon Wright: 45.5 YPP | 44% inside the 20 | 29.6% TB
Long snappers deserve some love, too. None of these remarkable kicking and punting performances would have been possible without the consistency of these athletes:
Turner Bernand (New Orleans): Contributed to Matt Coghlin’s near perfect stat-line, going 18/19 on field goals in 2023. Bernard was excellent all season long.
Ryan Navarro (Philadelphia): Luis Aguilar’s 8/8 outing would never have happened without the consistency of Navarro. Despite Ryan dealing with multiple holders (and kickers) in 2023, he was rock solid all year long.
Jordan Ober (New Jersey): There’s a reason why Nic Sciba and Brock Miller were two of the most efficient special teams players in the USFL. Jordan Ober was spot on, and it’s exactly why New Jersey was such a well oiled machine in these areas.
Ross Reiter (Houston): Nick Vogel went 5/5 in week nine. Riley Lovingood (Pittsburgh): Chris Blewitt went 5/5 in week three, and 4/4 in week four.
Keeping Special Teams In The Game
It’s refreshing to see the USFL put an emphasis on keeping special teams in the game of football. For example, fans were treated to electrifying kickoffs all season long. While the NFL is attempting to remove the play altogether, the USFL saw over 90% of kicks returned in 2023.
With the regular season complete, let's take a look at how the #USFL kickoff changed the game:
– 91.4% of kickoffs returned – 37.4 yard line | avg. starting field position – 5 KO TD's (1.3%)
Plenty of excitement from this play all year long, altering multiple @USFL outcomes.
The game was changed due to these rules adjustments. The average starting field position after a kickoff put teams at the 37.4 yard line, which starkly contrasts the NFL (25.8). Multiple outcomes were impacted by returners putting their squads in a position to win.
We tracked kickoff data weekly, and at the end of the season it gives us an excellent look at how it truly affected the league. Multiple coaches spoke about how they had to scheme differently at times, simply because of the field position offered to themselves, or their opponents.
Week-By-Week Average Starting Field Position:
1: 40.5 – season high 2: 36.8 3: 39.0 4: 36.1 5: 37.6 6: 36.3 7: 36.4 8: 35.4 – season low 9: 37.2 10: 39.2
These athletes took full advantage of their opportunities. From the exciting kickoff return touchdowns, to the perfect kicking performances, special teams units were locked in. This would not be possible without the platform that the USFL provided to the players, coaches, and everyone else involved.
Across the board, special teams shined in the USFL in 2023. There are so many players who have earned NFL opportunities, and will likely take a leap to the next level this offseason. The USFL, and its players, should be proud of the product they delivered in season two.
Special thanks to Noah Beauso (Between The Goalposts) for providing us with in-depth statistics and numbers regarding these athletes.
Graphic provided by Jake Ball of Panthers Shadow (USFLShadow).
What are your thoughts on these USFL to NFL prospects from special teams? Which players do you expect to see in the NFL? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!