Since last year, there have been several steps taken to set the XFL on course for 2020. From the financial commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars, to the brilliant hire of Oliver Luck, to all the credible coaching and front office hires, to the league’s breakthrough TV deal with ABC, Fox and ESPN, but it wasn’t until these player showcases began, that the XFL starting feeling like a real football league. The league is being built brick by brick. That’s the feeling I got as I was standing on the sidelines of Sprague Field, at Montclair State University. There are still some kinks to iron out, and it’s not quite the well-oiled machine, that it can become, but the foundation has been set up very nicely so far.
As I was watching the players and coaches work together, through several different drills. It was hard not to notice, a huge banner facing the end zone, honoring perhaps Montclair State’s greatest football alum, the late great Sam Mills. It’s rather fitting that on a day, where talented players, who are NFL caliber, but for varying reasons haven’t made it, that the epitome of that type of player would be hovering over the field, in name and in spirit. Sam Mills was a 5’9″ linebacker from Montclair State who ended up becoming a five-time pro bowler in the NFL, had his number retired by the Carolina Panthers, and is in the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. Where he ended up was legendary, but the journey is what made him a legend. No major colleges wanted him because of his size. He went undrafted, signed by the Cleveland Browns, and then cut. Off to the CFL, then cut again. Sam Mills ends up trying out for the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. The rest is history. He ends up not only making the team, but winning two championships and becoming one of the greatest players in the history of the United States Football League. If not for the USFL, a great player like Sam Mills, may have never become a legend and inspiration, for so many players that followed, and the many who played with and against him. The USFL may not have lasted, but it helped the game of football and its players. Leagues like this are made for the greater good of football. It’s the thing that XFL CEO Oliver Luck reiterated yet again on Friday, how he is most excited about the fact that the XFL will produce 1,000 football jobs for players, coaches, referees and others.
It was an extremely eventful day in Montclair. There’s so much to digest and go over. A big thanks to Stephanie Rudnick, Lou D’Ermilio, Scott Parker, Brentan Debysingh, and some many others associated with the XFL, for being so hospitable and friendly. The league rolled out the red carpet for not only the players, but the fans and media members as well. Thanks for letting me annoy Oliver Luck and others with so many questions. It was also a pleasure to meet up with other media members. I had a chance to go down memory lane with longtime sports reporter and broadcaster Peter Schwartz. Peter called XFL games for NY/NJ back in 2001, while I covered the team. We both shared in the differences between the XFL, that was and the XFL that is being realized today. As we watched the great athletes on the field. Schwartz pointed out the stark differences between what the XFL looks like now, and what it was. He brought up a funny story, about an unnamed Hitmen offensive lineman, that was near death and severely out of shape, in halftime of game one on NBC. Oh by the way… Darren Rovell is a good guy, and thanks to his 6.41 sec 40 yard dash, I won a side bet. I took the 6.0 over.
Ex-ESPN Reporter Darren Rovell just ran the 40.
6.41 seconds in athletic gear. pic.twitter.com/0BCjRqeXuD
— Jake Marsh (@PMTsportsbiz) June 14, 2019
It was also great meeting up with other members of the XFL community. Like Alan from the ‘This is The XFL Show’ podcast. The show itself has become a huge hit in XFL circles. So much so that, people in the league office listen to the show at home, while watching their kids. The community is very important. It’s one of the things that really hurt so much about the demise of the AAF, the USFL, and the original XFL. Fans get attached and take real ownership of these types of leagues. They become so deeply invested in it, and end up living and dying with these leagues, similar to how a fan would with his favorite sports team.
There are several different items to go over, from Friday’s Showcase. Let’s start with the players;
There were several standouts on Friday. The league’s football operations department has their work cut out for them, deciding which of these players to sign to XFL contracts. One thing’s for certain, in my view, Hakeem Nicks is going to be a premium player in the XFL Draft come October. That’s if he doesn’t sign on with an NFL team. He showed that, he could still be playing in the NFL. Injuries forced him out, and once a veteran is slotted as a #4 or #5 WR, if he doesn’t bring value on specials. He doesn’t make the team. I must admit, that I was skeptical when I saw his name on the list of Showcase participants. It’s been a few years since he stepped on a football field, and a few before that, where he produced at a high level. Through no fault of his own. Hakeem was an elite and clutch receiver, when he was healthy. He’s always had a tremendous catch radius and great body control in the air. That was on display on Friday. He looked like a new man. Hakeem was smiling from ear to ear, he was genuinely happy to be on the field working out. He ran all the drills. Hakeem didn’t play the veteran card, and just skip certain drills. He decided to go all in. Where Nicks really shined, was in 1 on 1 drills. It was an overcast day with plenty of wind, and Nicks made some highlight receptions on throws that were off the mark because of it.
— XFL (@xfl2020) June 14, 2019
While the QB group didn’t have great cache to them. They all performed fairly well. Chattanooga’s Alejandro Bennefield made some great throws. Alek Torgersen looked great.
Joe Callahan also really stood out. The former Division III superstar, who won the Gagliardi trophy at Wesley college, which is the equivalent of the Heisman trophy at that level, Callahan showed great accuracy and ability to throw on the run. He made some big time throws in small windows. It was a very good showing for him.
The best action came in 1 on 1 drills. Several standouts during these sessions. On the receiving side, it was former AAF star Mekale McKay, Texas Tech receiver De’Quan Bowman, Stony Brook Tight End Connor Davis, Temple Tight End Colin Thompson, amongst others. As far as defensive backs, the speedster Kendall James from Maine looked very good, as did DB’s Max Redfield, Titus Howard and Dante Redwood. In the trenches, some players who stood out were offensive lineman Kirk Barron from Purdue and Andrew Tiller from Syracuse. On the defensive line, Kristjan Sokoli, the former Seahawks draft pick, looked very good coming off an ACL tear, that cost him the 2018 season. You have quite a few players like Sokoli, who are on a mission to salvage their careers.
Andre Williams had a really good showing for himself. The former Doak Walker and Jim Brown award winner, was similar to Hakeem Nicks. He’s been out of the NFL for a couple of years, and had a little extra pep in his step. Missing in action was Dexter McCluster. He was originally advertised for the showcase, I received no official explanation for his absence.
Now let’s get to some news and info. I was able to get 1 on 1 time with XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck, on two separate occasions. and several other top figures within the league. On a side note, here’s hoping that the XFL’s chalk talk session makes it way to social media. It’s a great vehicle for the league to create awareness for what they are attempting to do, to enhance the awareness of the product. It’s sort of like XFL 101, for those who are not up on the league. A lot of what the league is doing, in terms of research and development, is still a work in progress, and will be completed at the Spring League by the end of July. Oliver Luck and Kevin Gilbride were very engaging during the day’s outdoor Chalk Talk session.
In reference to that, expect the league’s official game rules to be released in August. Some of the concepts are nearing the finish line. Specifically, the tiered point system after touchdowns, and the overtime aspect. On that note, one thing that Oliver Luck mentioned was that the league was actually discussing aspects of the tiered extra points, in relation to gambling. You could see how a game could be affected, in terms of the spread, and over/unders with 3-point conversions potentially in play.
On team names. It is a topic every fan wants to know, and that every media member dances around when talking with someone in the league. Everyone in the league is fully aware of how it is the most pressing issue for followers of the XFL. It sounds like team names will be coming in July, and the plan is to unveil them all at once. Nothing finalized yet, but there could be some type of press conference/media event to make the announcement.
I asked Oliver Luck about an official uniform outfitter for the league. There’s nothing close on that front yet. It’s important to note, that while team names and logos will come first. It might take some time for the actual uniforms to be released. The real need for uniforms, will come once the teams are formed and begin practicing. So that could be a hint of a timetable. The league has had preliminary talks with companies about the design for their helmets. Nothing has been finalized on that end either. The footballs that have been displayed thus far, are not the final versions. Most of the players had positive reviews about the prototypes, that have been used at the showcases.
On the back burner, for now, is team schedules. While the entire TV schedule has been released ahead of time. The actual team schedules may take some time to formulate. Depending on the schedule of the league’s 8 venues. Individual ticket sales would most likely coincide with the team schedule release. Also, the XFL also doesn’t anticipate any delays in the retrofitted Globe Life Park for XFL Dallas.
There are two team president hires left for Jeffrey Pollack, the league’s president and COO to make. Pollack has been playing catch up. He came on board with the XFL fairly recently. He’s the lead on all of these hires. The St. Louis team president hire seems imminent and could be revealed this coming week. The Dallas hire may be the final one. Negotiations are still on-going. On a side note, I met with XFL NY Team President Janet Duch. She was very engaging and seems genuinely excited about the team’s prospects of finding an audience in New York. The original XFL fan in me, pointed out to her that the team that was second in the league in attendance back in 2001, was in fact New York with over 28,000 fans per game. I asked Janet, if the league was close on naming a training facility for XFL NY. She said that they are narrowing down the list to a few choices right now.
The league does plan on having exhibition games in January, as sort of a dress rehearsal for the season. These scrimmages will most likely not be available to the public. The purpose of them is to act as almost a dress rehearsal for the players, coaches, broadcasters and referees.
Just some housekeeping on some items, that most diehard XFL followers know. The eight teams will have 45 player rosters with 7 player practice squads. Team 9 will be formed prior to the start of the XFL season, and it will be a group of players under league contract, that train with a select group of coaches in Arlington Texas, and that stay prepared for when there are injuries or a need from the league’s eight teams. Player contracts will include base salary, pay during training camp, incentives in the form of victory bonuses, and full health benefits. The XFL will begin offering contracts to players in July.
All in all, it was a great experience. I am most excited for the players during this process. Who knows, maybe someday, one of these players will have their banner at the stadium of their alma mater, just like Sam Mills.
Mike Mitchell is a freelance sports writer, analyst, and a general lover of all football. Mike was one of the original XFLBoard.com Team Reporters in 2001, reporting on the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. We have welcomed him back to the XFLBoard and love his ongoing insightful contributions.