The XFL’s league-wide training camp begins in Houston on January 4th. The New York Guardians will be setting up shop at Houston Baptist University from January 4th through the 22nd. The Guardians will be practicing at Husky Stadium. At the very end of training camp, the Guardians will be having a scrimmage game against their week one regular-season opponent, the Tampa Bay Vipers on January 21st in Houston, something that Head Coach/GM Kevin Gilbride has voiced his displeasure with, but the idea is a request from the XFL’s broadcast partners. Think of it as a full dress rehearsal for FOX Sports, the announcers, the players, coaches and referees. This scrimmage will act as an unofficial non-televised preseason game.
The Guardians will practice with other XFL teams during their time in Houston as well. January 22nd will be cut down day for all XFL rosters, and all XFL teams will pare down their rosters to 52 players. There is a lot that can change between now and training camp, and there has already been some post minicamp roster movement on XFL teams. There figures to be more moves before and even during training camp. Before we get to that point, let’s take a preliminary look at the Guardians defensive and special teams depth chart, and where they stand as the team heads towards training camp in the new year.
Like many of the XFL’s defenses, the Guardians defense is going to have to be multiple in their defensive looks. The 4-3, the 3-4 and the 4-2-5 are all in play here. Within their division alone, the Guardians will be facing multiple styles of offense. XFL rules will also force defenses hands, with teams playing up-tempo with a 25-second play clock and an advanced audio communication system. The Guardians’ defense will be forced to adapt. Two main positions will be vital on the Guardians: The teams’ middle linebacker and safety. Both players will have headsets and access to their coaching staff. Adjustments will need to be made on the fly and in quick fashion. Defensive Coordinator Jim Herrmann has experience coaching in the 3-4 and 4-3, but with so many spread out Air Raid inspired offenses in the league, this defense may have to line up in many nickel and dime sets as their base.
Defensive End- (#99)- Victor Ochi, (#91)- Jarrell Owens,
Defensive Tackle- (#93)- T.J. Barnes, (#94)- Joey Mbu Jr.
Potential Starters/Top Reserves- DE’S- (#92)- Rykeem Yates
DL- (#95)- Cavon Walker, (#96)- Toby Johnson Jr., (#58)- Bunmi Rotini
The Guardians’ strength upfront is in their two experienced space eaters in Defensive Tackles TJ Barnes and Joey Mbu. It will be difficult to run up the middle against those two. How Coach C.J. Ah You and the defensive staff utilize and rotate lineman up front will be key. The up-tempo pace of the XFL is not exactly favorable to 330-pound plus defensive tackles.
There is some good talent and experience at Defensive End for New York with NFL veteran Victor Ochi. Ochi has experience lining up with his hand on the ground and standing up as an edge rusher. Ochi is a well-traveled young edge rusher who hasn’t had the opportunity to do what he does best and that’s rush the passer. In the NFL, in order to make the team as a backup, you need to be a standout performer on all special teams units. Ochi’s bread and butter since breaking sack records at Stony Brook has been disrupting passing games. He’s going to get a chance to do just that on a more frequent basis with New York. Will Ochi be an every-down contributor or just be utilized as a pass-rushing specialist? Another Guardians draft pick that New York has high hopes for is former Second Team All-Big 12 Defensive End Jarrell Owens. A breakout performer at Oklahoma State in his senior season, Owens was an effective performer on the edge as a pass rusher and run defender. Jarrell could be an every-down starter for the Guardians come February.
One of the players at Defensive End that the Guardians were banking on was Purdue and current Falcons edge rusher Austin Larkin. Austin was selected by the Guardians in the third round of their defensive front seven draft back in October. Larkin had a great preseason with the Falcons and was brought back to Atlanta’s roster. He was most recently elevated to the Falcons main roster to replace an injured Takk McKinley.
The Guardians have some intriguing under the radar talents who can play defensive end and defensive tackle if called upon in Cavon Walker, Bunmi Rotini, and Toby Johnson Jr. All three of these players can play in a 3 or 4 man front at DE or DT. Cavon Walker is a unique player. He started out at Maryland as a 220-pound linebacker and then transitioned to being a 6’2 278-pound defensive tackle. Somewhat undersized as a prototypical defensive tackle, and as an end in a 3-4 front, but with the XFL’s pace of play being different than the NFL, Walker’s skill set might be ideal for combating the non-stop up-tempo offenses that the league will present. Walker has a great motor and very good strength (31 reps) at his pro day coming out of college.
Outside Linebackers- (#45)- D’Juan Hines & (#49)- Nick DeLuca
Middle Linebacker- (#56)- Ben Heeney
Top Reserves- (#47)- Frank Ginda, (#44)- Ryan Mueller, (#48)- Jawuan Johnson, (#51)- Darnell Leslie
This linebacking corps has been put together and built to play every down football. It all starts with the man in the middle. Ben Heeney was selected first by the Guardians in their front seven draft. The former 5th round pick of the Raiders and First Team All Big 12 Linebacker at Kansas, has had a rocky pro career since being drafted. Heeney has had some tough luck and has not been able to stay healthy after having a very promising rookie season with Oakland in 2015. Heeney is tough and smart. He can stop the run, cover, tackle and even rush the passer if needed. With New York, he’s going to be tasked with leading the front seven.
D’Juan Hines is your classic three-down outside linebacker. The 6’1 235 pound started his college career as a receiver before transitioning to safety and then eventually linebacker. Hines was named All-AAC First Team in his senior season with the Houston Cougars. Hines was also a four-time Academic All-American during his time in college. D’Juan Hines ability to cover ground and space in the run and pass game should be a valuable asset to the New York defense.
Nick DeLuca and Frank Ginda are going to be important contributors to this linebacking unit. DeLuca can play inside and outside linebacker. At North Dakota State, he was a 4-time FCS National Champion and a first-team FCS All-American. San Jose State’s Frank Ginda was a tackling machine in college. Ginda led the nation in tackles in 2017. He was first-team All-Mountain West and a three-time All-Academic athlete. Ginda decided to forego his senior season and declare for the NFL draft. He went undrafted and has since spent time with the Cards, Dolphins and San Diego Fleet, where he led the team in tackles earlier this year. It would not shock me in the slightest if Ginda breaks the starting lineup and stays there.
Ryan Mueller is a tweener type player who can line up on the edge and rush the passer. He’s always been a high motor player that gets the most out of his ability. At Kansas State, Mueller was voted the Big 12’s defensive lineman of the year. Another tweener here is Monmouth’s, Darnell Leslie. The All-Big South edge rusher could have a designated pass-rushing role in this defense.
Jawauan Johnson is an undersized coverage linebacker from TCU. Johnson was a late transfer from Northern Illinois in 2018. Johnson really surged at the end of his college run and earned the AP’s All Bowl Team designation. Many NFL scouts like Tony Pauline rated Johnson as a late-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Jawuan fits the modern-day mold of a run and chase linebacker.
Cornerback- (#21)- Jamar Summers, (#24)- David Rivers, (#31)- Terrence Alexander
Safeties- (#33)- A.J. Hendy, (#22)- Dravon Askew-Henry
Top reserves- CB- (#29)- Bryce Jones, (#36) S-Demetrious Cox, CB – (#39)- Ranthony Texada II, & DB- (#30)- Andrew Soroh
A strong young secondary would have been made that much stronger if the Guardians 2nd round pick in their DB draft, Lorenzo Doss had committed to the team. Regardless, as it stands right now, and based on the early returns from mini-camp, this is a really talented unit with a major upside. It doesn’t hurt that the New York DB’s are getting coached up by former All-Pro corner Chris Dishman.
Jamar Summers is an excellent cover corner. He graded out as one of the best defensive backs in the AAF by Pro Football Focus. All the rules will favor the offense in the XFL, so having a true top-flight corner is extremely important, and that’s what New York has in Summers.
It’s a good thing that David Rivers was selected third by the Guardians in their DB draft. He’s going to be a very good compliment to Summers on the outside. At 6 feet, Rivers has the size to match up and the athleticism to keep up with opposing receivers.
LSU’s Terrence Alexander is a keeper. LSU’s Ed Orgeron called Alexander one of the smartest players he has ever been around. The former Stanford graduate, Alexander transferred to LSU in 2018. Alexander did so well in Stanford’s classrooms that he was offered a job in cybersecurity for more than 100,000 dollars per year. He is holding off on his post-playing career to play more football. He transferred to LSU to get into their graduate business school but ultimately, he chose LSU for the football education of playing man coverage in the SEC. Alexander is an ideal slot corner. He doesn’t have great size at 5’10 and 182 pounds but he is very physical and smart. He may end up being one of the league’s best slot corners.
At safety, the player that has really emerged is A.J. Hendy. He made quite an impression in camp with his heady play and cover skills. Hendy has natural ball tracking skills as a former Wide Receiver. He’s been a career practice squader in the NFL but it looks like he is ready to take the next step as a pro. Joining Hendy at safety is Dravon Askew-Henry. A tough and durable player that can play multiple positions, Dravon spent time at West Virginia playing a hybrid linebacker role in the Mountaineers 3-3-5 defense. Askew-Henry’s ability to play in the box will be an asset to the Guardians’ defense.
Defensive Backs Demetrious Cox and Andrew Soroh are going to find their way onto the field in all packages. Both were selected in the 4th and 5th round of the DB draft back to back by New York. Cox is a natural free safety with good cover skills. The 6’2 210 pound Andrew Soroh is a punishing and physical defensive back with leadership traits. Soroh wore several hats at Florida Atlantic, playing safety, linebacker, nickel corner and even lined up as a pass rusher. It’s going to be hard to keep him off the field.
The Guardians currently have 15 defensive backs on their roster after recently adding DB Tre Mathis. One of their most recent pickups, Cornerback Bryce Jones could end up playing a pivotal role in nickel and dime defensive packages. The competition is pretty stiff at the corner spot. The Guardians brass is very high on Cornerbacks Nydair Rouse and Ranthony Texada. All in all, this looks like a formidable secondary. In order to contend in the XFL, it will have to be.
GUARDIANS SPECIAL TEAMS
I can’t possibly leave this area out of the equation. Especially since it’s going to be emphasized heavily in the XFL’s rules. There will be more kick and punt returns than probably any league that has ever existed. A byproduct of having no fair catch and having penalties in place for kicking out of bounds. Many of the defensive players listed will make this roster based on the value they bring to this facet of the team, specifically the coverage units.
In the kicking game, there will be less punting and no extra points, but that doesn’t decrease the value of having a quality kicker that can help you win close games. The punters might be kept on the sidelines more than football fans are accustomed to, but again there’s value in a punter’s hang time and their ability to prevent big returns from happening. Here is the current depth chart for this unit.
Kicker/Kickoff Specialist- (#16)- Matthew McCrane
Punter-(#8)- Justin Vogel
Long Snapper-(#42)- Scott Daly
Kick/Punt Returners- (#15)- Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi & ( #1)- DeMarcus Ayers
The Guardians are pretty solid all around in this area and they can be very explosive returning kicks with Sheehy and Ayers. Several other players could factor in here as well but for the time being, its hard not to envision Damon and DeMarcus leading the charge. Playing in the northeast requires the type of kicking specialists and returners that can help flip field position and specialists that can help best deal with the elements expected come February 9th when the Guardians host the Vipers at MetLife Stadium.