Throughout the USFL season, there were plenty of remarkable defensive efforts from multiple players. The USFL featured many outstanding defenders, who remained consistent during the course of all ten games.
There’s quite a few who have earned themselves NFL recognition due to their impressive performances, and rightfully so. As the offseason quickly approaches, let’s take a look at some of the league’s top tier defenders, and recap their successful 2023 campaigns.
DT Boogie Roberts | Pittsburgh Maulers
Get ready for plenty of Pittsburgh Maulers to be featured in this piece. This defense was outstanding, and a lot of credit has to be given to Boogie Roberts, who commanded and led this unit up front.
Roberts finished the season with 32 tackles, 8 TFL, and 3 sacks. He was brilliant throughout the year, seeing plenty of valuable minutes, while also bringing the best out of his teammates. Boogie took on a ridiculous amount of double teams this season, which allowed others to feast in the trenches.
Boogie Roberts is what the USFL is all about. He was with Pittsburgh a season ago, and played relatively well. However, it’s clear that he put the work in during the offseason. Roberts looks like a different player this time around, as he’s faster and stronger compared to a season ago. His ability to track down opponents in the backfield is quite impressive.
After such a strong outing in 2023, expect Boogie to finally get those NFL looks that he’s been striving to achieve. With two USFL seasons under his belt, Roberts is primed to make a leap if the right opportunity presents itself.
DT Keonte Schad | New Orleans Breakers
The former Oregon product made a name for himself in the USFL. Keonte Schad turned up the intensity down the stretch, turning out to be one of the best defensive tackles in the league.
Schad’s been doing it all for New Orleans this season, and is a big reason why their defense saw improvements weekly. He racked up 26 tackles, 9 TFL, and 7.5 sacks in what was a dominant outing up front.
With how solid his 2023 tenure has been, Keonte should certainly be making moves on up in the offseason.
DE Breeland Speaks | Michigan Panthers
Before the season began, Breeland Speaks was a candidate we predicted would dominate at this level. The former NFL hopeful had his eyes set on returning to the league – but needed a platform to showcase his talents.
Breeland Speaks is having a monster outing for the @USFLPanthers today.
The USFL provided him with exactly that, and Speaks took full advantage of it. Breeland was an absolute monster from the first snap of the season, never relenting throughout its entirety. Even after teams began to scheme to slow him down, Breeland’s production was always respectable. In addition, the increased focus on Speaks allowed other teammates to thrive.
Breeland posted 53 tackles, 6 TFL, and a league-high 9 sacks for the Michigan Panthers. It’s been a spectacular year for Speaks, who now has an opportunity to chase a USFL title. Speaks also made the 2023 All-USFL defensive team.
Regardless of the season’s final outcome, Speaks is well on his way back to an NFL camp. His sheer effort and determination to get the job done was on full display. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Head Coach Mike Nolan spoke on multiple occasions about how he “wants it more”. Clearly, this opportunity meant a lot to him, and Speaks made the most of it.
DE Adam Rodriguez | Philadelphia Stars
Adam Rodriguez had another productive season, serving as a pillar for the Philadelphia Stars defensively. Rodriguez is now the modern USFL sacks record holder, with 15 through the previous two seasons.
In 2023, Adam racked up 27 tackles, 6 TFL, and 6 sacks. He was one of PFF’s top graded Stars throughout the year, consistently in the top five on the team. Adam joins Breeland on the All-USFL 2023 Defense team.
Similar to Boogie Roberts, Rodriguez has now had two excellent seasons in the USFL. Considering how he’s proven himself to be a reliable force in the trenches, he’s put himself in a position to receive NFL interest heading into the offseason.
DE Hercules Mata’afa | New Jersey Generals
As a Minnesota Vikings fan, I clearly remember Hercules Mata’afa and his NFL minutes. While he had limited opportunities, I was impressed with what he was able to accomplish.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Mata’afa lands in the USFL. Hercules has been a solid lineman for the Generals for the past two seasons, and really showcased just how good he can be this year.
Mata’afa posted 25 tackles, 6 TFL, and 6 sacks in 2023. His presence was always being felt in the trenches, and it showed on tape.
DT Toby Johnson | New Jersey Generals
The veteran DT once again had an exceptional USFL campaign. He’s been playing some of the best football of his career in this league.
Toby Johnson has been around the block a few times, playing in multiple spring leagues and also spending time in the NFL. He’s polished his game in the USFL, though, turning into a dominant run stopper who can also get after the quarterback.
Johnson finished the season with 42 tackles (leading all DT’s), 4 TFL, and 3.5 sacks. With two All-USFL campaigns under his belt, it would not be surprising at all to see him lend a helping hand in an NFL camp this fall.
Frank “The Tank” Ginda had another remarkable season in the USFL. For the second straight year, he’s been a leader for the Panthers defense, doing everything he needs to do – and more – for this squad to see success.
Ginda even stepped up his game this year, showcasing why he was the “signal caller” in Mike Nolan’s defense. Nolan praised Frank throughout the season for his intelligence on the defensive side of the football, which led to him being so prolific in 2023.
Despite yesterday's loss, LB Frank Ginda led the team with 11 tackles, 2 TFL, & a tide-turning INT. With how consistent @frankginda05 has been this #USFL season, I'd be shocked if he doesn't get an NFL look.
In his second USFL season, Ginda posted: 104 tackles (league-high), 3 TFL, 1 sack, and 3 interceptions. Without a doubt, he’s a top candidate for DPOY, and qualified as an All-USFL athlete this year.
It’s hard to put into words just how special his season was. Ginda won defensive player of the week four times, which is unheard of. It’s a USFL record, and something that might have solidified him as the top defensive player this year.
Kyahva Tezino | Pittsburgh Maulers
Hot on Ginda’s tail is Kyahva Tezino, who demonstrated his talents time and time again in 2023. Just like Frank, Tezino played a season ago, and performed well. However, this time around he was even better, doing so much for Pittsburgh’s defense. With the injuries to Reuben Foster throughout the year, Tezino stepped up in a crucial way.
Kyahva ended the regular season with 94 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 interceptions, and 6 PD. He was a leader for Jarren Horton’s unit week in and week out, winning DPOW in week six. Tezino also earned All-USFL honors for 2023.
Kyahva Tezino is having himself a DAY. The #USFL DPOY candidate picks off Josh Love for the second time today, and Pittsburgh takes over again.
A couple weeks ago, Daryl Johnston mentioned in a press conference that he was surprised by the fact that Tezino didn’t get an NFL look after the first season. After his 2023 performance, that should all be changing soon.
Isaiah Chambers | Houston Gamblers
An underrated playmaker from the 2023 season is Isaiah Chambers. He led the USFL in tackles for loss, with 12. No one else even got to double digits in that category.
Throughout the year, Chambers stabilized a Houston defense that was searching for an identity. They had lost multiple All-USFL candidates from a season ago, and it took a bit of time for them to figure things out. Isaiah played a role in doing just that, as the Gamblers defense saw major improvements from week one to week ten.
A prime example of Chambers’ impact came in week eight, against Pittsburgh. There were a couple of key stops in that game which turned the tide, and Isaiah was the one leading the charge. After such a strong outing, expect Chambers to land NFL interest soon.
Vontae Diggs | New Orleans Breakers
Vontae Diggs continues to get better with each season in the USFL. The linebacker (who at times, plays like a safety) did a bit of everything for the Breakers defensively.
Diggs finished 2023 with: 69 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 6 PD. He won DPOW in week four, when he posted 12 tackles and 2 TFL in what was a dominant outing.
How about those @USFLBreakers? A broken play results in a pick six for Vontae Diggs, who's had an outstanding season for New Orleans so far.
What makes Vontae so special is his ability to be versatile in any defensive system. He can plug the gaps and slow down the run, or, he could play like a free safety and wreak havoc in the middle of the field. Whatever he may be designated to do, he does it well.
Chris Orr | New Jersey Generals
Chris Orr had an exceptional season for the New Jersey Generals. Even though he missed a couple of weeks due to injury, he came back for the final couple of weeks fighting through the pain – and performed at a high level.
A positive for the @USFLGenerals from Sunday was seeing LB Chris Orr back in the lineup. He led the team with 12 tackles, & 2 TFL.
Orr finished the season with 81 tackles, 7 TFL, and 2.5 sacks. His 2023 campaign landed him a spot on the All-USFL 2023 Defense Team, which was certainly well deserved. New Jersey’s defense was led by athletes such as Johnson and Orr, with the duo combining for some big-time numbers this year.
As Orr continues to get healthy, it’d be a welcomed sight to see him land an NFL look. Chris plays smart football, and could have been the USFL’s tackling leader had it not been for those injuries.
Mark Gilbert likely just put himself in a position to return to the NFL. The All-USFL DB was on lock all year long, taking so many tough assignments and excelling in them all. He led the league with four interceptions, and simply dominated the stat lines this year:
The former Pittsburgh Steeler made his mark in the USFL all season long. Without a doubt, he was essentially the top corner this year. “Gilbert Island” is here to stay.
CB Amani Dennis | Philadelphia Stars
Dennis had an outstanding year for Philadelphia, and one that doesn’t get enough attention. The Stars secondary dealt with plenty of injuries (i.e. Mazzi Wilkins, Channing Stribling). This led to Amani having to take on some of the USFL’s top receivers, and he did his job quite well.
Amani Dennis finished the season with: 30 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 7 PD. In addition, his week six performance single-handedly willed Philadelphia to a clutch win over the New Orleans Breakers, with a pick six and multiple impact plays.
After serving the Stars well for the last two seasons, Amani is someone to keep an eye on heading into the offseason. He’s earned an NFL look, so hopefully it comes his way sooner than later.
CB DJ Daniel | New Jersey Generals
DJ Daniel made it to the 2023 All-USFL team, and for good reason. He was a stabilizing force for Mike Riley’s defense, and performed well when his name was called upon. Daniel often guarded the opponent’s best WR, and consistently showed up.
DJ racked up 30 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 6 PD in 2023. He was very opportunistic this year, and also had a couple of picks which were called back due to penalties – showing that the stats don’t tell the full story of what he accomplished this year.
CB Levonta Taylor | Michigan Panthers
An underrated storyline during the USFL season was the efficiency of Levonta Taylor. Taylor posted 40 tackles this season, with several PD. The intriguing stat, though, is that he allowed zero touchdowns through ten games, which is quite impressive.
Taylor wasn’t targeted much this season, and for good reason. While he didn’t record an interception, it’s largely due to the effective coverage he was providing – quarterbacks hardly threw his way. If an NFL team is looking for a raw defender to lock down speedy receivers, Taylor could be that guy.
S Kyree Woods | Memphis Showboats
Kyree Woods’ season may have gotten overlooked due to an injury. He missed the final few weeks of action, which was unfortunate for Memphis’ defense, as Woods was sensational.
Kyree Woods is not getting nearly enough attention for the remarkable season he's having in the #USFL.
Through six weeks, he was the highest graded PFF player in the league, at 92.0. Week in and week out he made plays that ultimately helped win football games. Their five game winning streak can be partially attributed to his defensive efforts.
As Kyree looks to get healthy in the offseason, he should absolutely garner some interest from multiple NFL organizations.
S Arnold Tarpley III | Pittsburgh Maulers
Another example of extraordinary defensive play is Arnold Tarpley. He’s been in the spring football scene for years, but elevated his play in 2023 for the Pittsburgh Maulers.
The USFL took notice, as his efforts earned a spot on the All-USFL Defensive team. Tarpley finished the season with: 42 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 interceptions, and 8 PD.
Tarpley’s raw skill set allows him to freely flow within Jarren Horton’s defense. He’s got an uncanny ability to track the football, which led to a few interceptions and plenty of pass breakups this year. With how impressive his work was this year, expect Tarpley to make a move on up to the next level soon.
S Manny Bunch | Houston Gamblers
Another season cut short by an injury – Manny Bunch was excellent in 2023. Houston’s defense needed a leader in the secondary, and Bunch provided them with exactly that. Before going on the injured reserve list, Bunch posted 54 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 interception, and 4 PD which resulted in an All-USFL selection.
We’re wishing Manny a speedy recovery, and hope to see him back on the field soon. His 2023 efforts should not go unnoticed.
S Cody Brown | Philadelphia Stars
The hitman himself had another impressive year in the USFL. Cody Brown’s consistently been one of spring football’s top safeties, and continued that trend this year.
Brown wrapped up the USFL season with: 61 tackles, 5 TFL, and 6 PD. The hard-hitting safety was prowling on opponents week in and week out, forcing multiple fumbles as well. After another successful outing in the league, it’s easy to imagine Cody turning some scouting heads in the NFL.
As previously mentioned, the defensive talent in the USFL was off the charts this year. There are so many worthy athletes who should be highlighted, and plenty who will certainly be called up to NFL camps over the coming months.
The good news: a handful of these players will be featured in the USFL playoffs, so we can all enjoy watching them play at least one more time this season.