Team Nine Explained: What it means for XFL teams

XFL Team Nine

One of the highly unique features of the XFL this inaugural season is the creation of a “Team Nine” which in essence is the league-wide practice squad.  Unlike NFL teams, the XFL will draw upon a ready and available pool of players who will literally be sitting and waiting for a phone call from any team in this new league.

Team Nine will carry about 35-40 active players in all positions and each player will stay in top playing shape just in case a team does call and need an immediate replacement at for a specific position.  Long time coach Bart Andrus, an NFL Europe alumnus along with Oliver Luck, has reportedly been hired to be the Team Nine head coach. The XFL has decided to keep this Team Nine together and create a league practice squad with players who can report to their new team in hours. XFL commissioner Luck explains the concept behind Team Nine:

We want to have a group of guys that will be based in Dallas who basically are staying in shape .  . . We think that because of our 25-second play clock our game is going to require quite honestly a little bit better conditioning that what some of these guys may be used to in the NFL or the CFL.  So it’s important that these guys are in shape, and it’s hard to stay in football shape on your own.  That’s been one of my beliefs. You need to be around others.
– Oliver Luck – Pro Football Talk, 6/18/19

Furthermore, one of the major purposes of keeping Team Nine around is to discourage XFL teams from having to find players on the street who may or may not be in football playing shape. In the NFL, a player brought in on a contract who injures himself at any time becomes a workers’ compensation issue and forces a team to go and locate yet another player to replace the injured one. For the XFL, assigning a game-ready player to Team Nine is a prudent measure in mitigating legal and insurance costs and also means that each player on this roster has to be ready at a moment’s notice to get on a plane or bus and immediately start playing on an XFL active roster.  Although this new league practice squad may not sound like an earth-shattering change in professional sports, the XFL is infusing new ideas not only into football but the Team Nine concept may carry over into leagues. One thing is almost certain this upcoming season-Team Nine players will more than likely end up being on active rosters so start paying attention to these players- they may be starting for your favorite XFL team next week.

Fighting for H-Town: XFL Roughnecks’ Ajene Harris making impact in camp

Ajene Harris, former USC Trojan. Credit: YouTube 

If you are looking for a football player who can play quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, nickelback and be on special teams, then the Roughnecks have found that diamond in the rough – Ajene Harris.  Harris, hailing from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles via his hometown University of Southern California, has in high school and college played multiple positions which shows versatility, pure athletic talent and the heart of a true team player-going wherever the team needs him to play.

Ajene Harris had a very successful prep career at Crenshaw High School, where he earned a spot on the Cal-Hi All State second team and was the All-L.A. City Division I Player of the Year for 2013.  Harris earned these honors playing QB, WR and CB positions. Harris’ athletic talent attracted hometown USC and he earned a playing spot on the Trojan roster in 2014 as a backup WR. Harris suffered hip injuries and had surgery for his damaged hips in 2015, and sat out the entire season on a medical hold.  In 2016 Harris was converted over to the defensive side of the ball at cornerback/nickelback and also served on the USC special teams units as well. Harris had two successful seasons in 2017 and 2018, and was moved into the nickelback position. At the end of his NCAA career at USC, Harris garnered impressive statistics with 144 total tackles (including 86 solo) and 6.5 tackles for losses, 6 interceptions including 3 brought back for TD’s, 16 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and also recorded a sack.

Harris graduated from USC with a degree in Communications and later entered the NFL Draft where he remained undrafted.  In the spring of 2019, Harris reported to the Philadelphia Eagles mini camp as an undrafted free agent, and earned a chance to play in preseason games in August, 2019.  Harris then moved back and forth on the Eagles practice squad and has eventually found his way to the XFL and the Houston Roughnecks. Harris has made great strides in training camp to become a “lights out” defender and has made the XFL.com list of players to watch for the 2020 season: 

Adding to a bevy of talent in the front seven, the versatile Harris has shown the rare anticipation and playmaking ability to be a difference-maker in the secondary, and he can finish as a big-play hitter.

He’s a top defender to watch as the aggressive Roughnecks defense looks to prevent games from becoming shootouts. 

XFL.com

As fans, coaches, players and pundits alike await the offensive show that the Roughnecks will bring to the 2020 season, with players like Ajene Harris roaming the secondary to prevent shootouts with other offensive-minded teams, the Roughnecks look to bring new life to the adage that “defense wins championships.”

Keeping it Special: The Roughnecks Kicking Game

Football is a game of phases and the Roughnecks have developed a special teams unit that will no doubt be able to take care of this critical game phase each week.  Just as recent NFL games including the Wild Card weekend show, the kicking game is absolutely an integral part of head coach June Jones weekly game plan and any XFL team who overlooks special teams will certainly pay the price when the regular season opens up on February 8th.

The Roughnecks special teams unit is led by veteran coach Dennis McKnight.  Coach McKnight brings a great pedigree to the XFL and the Roughnecks staff having played as a guard in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles.  Coach McKnight has a stellar coaching resume as well having worked in the college ranks at Lamar University and in the CFL, lastly as the Special Teams Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and is well known to Coach Jones.

Handling the kicking duties for the Roughnecks is veteran kicker Sergio Castillo.  Coming out of the college ranks from West Texas A & M, Castillo played in the 2014 preseason with the Atlanta Falcons.  Castillo found his kicking talents suitable to the CFL, and found himself on the rosters with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, serving as a punter with the Ottawa Redblacks, and in the 2017 season served as the kicker for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats until a season-ending ACL injury sidelined him. Castillo also played for the San Antonio Commanders of the defunct AAF,, and recently just finished up the CFL season with the BC Lions until he was selected in the XFL Draft by the Roughnecks. Castillo brings experience and leg range to H-Town and he’ll have an immediate impact on the Roughnecks offensive game plan.

Taking up the punting duties for the Roughnecks is Austin Rehkow out of the University of Idaho. Rehkow has been in training camps with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants and also punted for the defunct Salt Lake Stallions of the AAF Rehkow will easily be able to serve as a backup kicker should the Roughnecks need one; in high school he kicked a 67 yard field goal which is still the Washington state high school record. Sergio Castillo played with the CFL Ottawa Redblacks as a punter so both players can assume each other’s jobs if need be this season.

Rounding out the primary special teams unit is long snapper Colton Taylor. Taylor hails from Virginia Tech and is famous for making “trick” long snaps. Taylor will get his XFL chance to prove the adage about long snappers: you only know their name when they mess up a snap.

Special teams will be an crucial component to the Roughnecks success this season and the coaching and front office staff have made sure that this phase is in very capable hands.

XFL Houston Roughnecks impact players to watch

Football is the most unselfish team sport that exists, period.  The success of key players is always predicated on the dedication,  hard work and play execution of eleven players on either side of the ball.  The Houston Roughnecks have a loaded roster of players with college, NFL, CFL and AAF experience as do the other teams in the re-booted XFL. The Roughnecks are loaded with football talent that should make them an immediate contender this season.  However, certain players stand out as  key impact performers:

Quarterback

Both PJ Walker and Connor Cook will be battling it out to be the starting quarterback on Opening Day.  Both players bring loads of talent, achievement and on-field success to the Roughnecks with both Walker and Cook being prolific college QB’s and Cook having NFL experience with the Oakland Raiders.  The reality is only one player can be named the starter and that will be up to head coach June Jones at the end of training camp. The second reality is in this day and age in football every team must have a strong backup QB who can at a moment’s notice not only fill in this position but successfully lead a team.  All you have to do is look at some of the NFL teams this past season to realize how critical a valuable backup QB is to the longevity of a team. Regardless of who the Roughnecks choose as their starting play caller come the end of training camp, this team needs a viable backup who is ready to go and between Walker and Cook this shouldn’t be an issue this season.

Running Backs

The Roughnecks have the versatile Nick Holley who can play multiple positions on offense (and be a backup QB in a tight spot as well) along with Marquez Williams and Akrum Wadley.  Again, experience and talent will help the Roughnecks backfield in the “run and shoot” offense favored by Coach Jones along with variations of this scheme.  Andre Williams  may also factor into the RB equation.

Wide Receiver

This is where the Roughnecks have so much experience and depth at and this talent pool should pay dividends quickly for a fast paced offense favored by the Roughnecks.  Kahlil Lewis, Sammie Coates, Blake Jordan, Jalen Saunders, Cam Phillips and Ryheem Malone all stand out as potential play makers for Coach Jones and for Sammie Coates this has to be a bit of a homecoming after playing for the Houston Texans and returning to play for the Roughnecks.

Offensive Line

Ryan Anderson is fully capable of anchoring the O line at Center with Gerhard de Beer, Kelvin Palmer and Tayo Fabuluje with Avery Jordan stepping in to provide both run and pass protection.

Defensive Line

Trenton Thompson, Corey Crawford, Kony Ealy and Gabe Wright immediately jump out as effective pass and run rushers and will no doubt help solidify the D line this season.

Linebackers

La Troy Lewis and Edmond Robinson both bring NFL experience to the LB corps and should help anchor this defensive unit.

Defensive Backs

Robert Nelson, Saivion Smith and Ajene Harris look to help bolster the secondary and should quickly have an impact in helping shut down other XFL pass offenses.

These are predictions of how the Roughnecks will start their respective offensive and defensive units.  Football is a fluid game and starters can get hurt, backups can outwork starters and win playing time and other players may move positions or be asked by the coaching staff to step up and fulfill unconventional roles.  The one thing that seems certain at the beginning of training camp is that the Roughnecks have a strong roster to make an impact on this inaugural XFL season and as the old football saying goes “next man up!” 

Roughnecks D: Preparing to Win Championships

Houston Roughnecks News

There’s an old saying in football: the offense wins games; the defense wins championships, and this year the Roughnecks with the new XFL season just weeks away will no doubt remember the importance of a stalwart defense in winning games.  Through the XFL draft, the Roughnecks have amassed a strong depth chart on the defensive side of the ball with most of the players having some sort of game time either on active NFL rosters, working on NFL practice squads, time in the Canadian Football League (CFL), or with the now-defunct Alliance of American Football (AAF.)

Defensive Line:  The big men up front in any defensive scheme lead the way and can make or break a Defensive Coordinator’s game plan each week.  The Roughnecks have built up a D Line corps around such players as Corey Crawford from Clemson who brings not only championship-caliber NCAA experience, but time with the Washington Redskins practice squad and playing time with the Memphis Express of the AAF and will help solidify the line.  Kony Ealy out of Missouri brings not only SEC playing experience, but NFL time with the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets, as does Gabe Smith who played collegiately at Auburn and had playing time with the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders.  Yet another SEC alumnus is Trenton Thompson out of Georgia, who also earned playing time with the Arizona Hotshots of the AAF.  Alongside Thompson is Johnny Maxey out of Mars Hill, who had time on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster and played with the defunct Birmingham Lions of the AAF. Rounding out some of the D Line standouts is Taylor Reed from SMU, who also had professional experience in the CFL with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, as well as Calgary and Ottawa. Many of these players have been in NFL camps and will bring that experience and maturity with them to the Roughnecks first season.

Linebackers: The Roughnecks Linebacker corps is also deep with professional experience. Carl Bradford was an All Pac-12 standout at Arizona State, and spent 2014-2016 between the Green Bay Packers active roster, and practice squads and also was with the Arizona Hotshots last season with the AAF.  Beniquez Brown is another SEC alumnus from Mississippi State who also spent 2016 on the Green Bay Packers practice squad, and played for the Birmingham Iron of the AAF.  DeMarquis Gates also brings SEC experience from Ole Miss, and last season with the Memphis Express led the AAF with 52 tackles and five forced fumbles.  Rounding out the Roughnecks LB’s are Le Troy Lewis and Ty Schwab.  Lewis, coming out of Tennessee, was on the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans active rosters, and Schwab was an NFL draft prospect from Boston College.  The experience and versatility of the Roughnecks LB’s will pay dividends quickly, and bolster DC Ted Cottrell’s defensive schemes this season.

Defensive Secondary:  Yet again the Roughnecks will immediately benefit from the depth of their secondary roster this season. Corrion Ballard  was a safety at Utah and comes in as an addition to the Roughnecks roster in time for training camp. Ballard brings NFL experience with him, after being on the active roster for the Carolina Panthers.  Ajene Harris from USC also brings an additional depth to the Roughnecks secondary,as Harris originally was a quarterback in high school and converted to a WR initially by USC before moving to cornerback and nickel back.  Harris also spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad. Robert Nelson from Arizona State earned 2013 All Pac-12 honors.  Nelson also has extensive NFL experience having been on the rosters of the Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans and New York Jets, and spent last year with the Arizona Hotshots of the AAF.  Saivion Smith from Alabama is a graduate of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide defensive back factory and was with the Jacksonville Jaguars this past pre-season.  The Roughnecks secondary is deep with playing time and will play an integral part in shutting down other XFL teams’ passing attacks this upcoming season.  

The Roughnecks Offensive Depth Chart

As 2019 comes to a close, and the XFL mini camps have all wrapped up, it’s time to take a serious look at more of the Roughnecks roster going into training camp which starts on January 4th and ends with roster cuts on January 22nd in anticipation of the upcoming season.  We’ve already taken a look at the Quarterback position and looked at a number of the Wide Receivers and Running Backs that Head Coach June Jones will have to build up offensive firepower this season. This third in a series of articles takes a better look at some of the players in the trenches who will determine success or failure at the line of scrimmage on offense.  The fourth article will be devoted to the Roughnecks defensive depth chart.

Wide Receiver Corps: We’ve already introduced some of the great WR’s that the Roughnecks have added to their roster, including NFL veterans such as Sammie Coates and Jalen Saunders, but this organization has stocked up with an entire WR corps that will no doubt provide additional explosive capabilities to the Roughnecks offense. Players such as Blake Jackson, a DIII national champion and All-American at Mary Hardin-Baylor will move over from QB to WR. Another well-known receiver is Kahlil Lewis from the University of Cincinnati.  WR’s such as Rhyeem Malone from Louisiana-Lafayette bring experience, having been with the Indianapolis Colts in minicamp, and Tim Wilson out of East Stroudsburg (PA) also brings additional experience having been in camp with the Philadelphia Eagles. Other receivers such as Sam Mobley are coming over from the Alliance of American Football (AAF) having played with the Salt Lake Stallions.  As I mentioned in my previous article, Cam Phillips and Hunter Sharp have NFL playing time with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants, respectively. The Roughnecks wide receiver corps is well stocked and will no doubt be fully ready to roll come January 4th in preparation for what many people expect to be a high-powered, high scoring offense.

Offensive Line:  While many of the offensive “skill” players normally get the credit for great plays and scoring touchdowns, the success or failure of every single play starts on the O Line, and Roughnecks have amassed a strong depth chart at these positions.  The O Line will be anchored with Ryan Anderson at Center; Anderson enjoyed a very successful career at Wake Forest and spent time with the Miami Dolphins organization before being drafted by the Roughnecks. Another lineman with connections to the NFL is OT Gerhard de Beer from the University of Arizona.  De Beer is originally from South Africa and came to the United States in order to play American football. De Beer had time with the Green Bay Packers and brings that NFL playing time with him to the Roughnecks O Line. Other linemen including Nick Callender out of Colorado State, Terry Poole out of my alma mater San Diego State, Demetrius Rhaney from Tennessee State and Toby Weathersby from LSU all bring AAF playing experience to the Roughnecks.  Further connections between the Roughnecks O Line include Avery Jordan out of New Mexico (younger brother to DeAndre Jordan of the Brooklyn Nets), Kelvin Palmer from Baylor and Demetrius Rhaney all have played at one time in the CFL for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, which of course is where Coach Jones came from before accepting the head coaching job with the Roughnecks. There is no doubt that the Roughnecks will have a strong O Line ready to go by February 8th and the depth chart is deep and experienced at the professional level.

What I want for an XFL Christmas

What I want for XFL Christmas

All of the XFL players and staff have returned home from the inaugural team mini-camps and will no doubt rest up before official training camps begin in January. At this time of the year I was thinking of what I want out of Christmas for the XFL, so I decided to write down a list for Santa Claus and hope he’ll deliver it not on Christmas Eve, but make a “special” delivery in early February 2020.  This is what I am asking Santa for this Christmas:

  1. A league that will stay around. We have all experienced spring football leagues and while Americans love their football there seems to be something wrong with keeping around professional football after February.  The USFL did a great job of spring and summer football the first two years in existence and gave us later NFL legends since as Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Steve Young but when the USFL challenged the NFL to play in the fall that league disappeared with a $1 lawsuit settlement.  The Alliance of American Football (AAF) tried to rush out and put a season together earlier this year and fell apart just as the league was getting interesting, hurting the players, the coaching staffs, and the fans who were just warming up to the AAF. If the XFL wants to win over fans then please Santa help this league stay around for years and years to come!
  2. Players that are truly dedicated to making the game a special event for fans. In a day and age where players in most professional sports are seemingly disconnected from their fans,  XFL players need to bring some excitement and genuine enthusiasm for the game back to the stands. Football is a game of passion, and we need players and coaches who truly love the game and are excited to be out on the field every moment of every game. I have already seen a lot of passion and true desire in this infant XFL season and want to see everybody “go hard” on every down.
  3. Fans are an integral part of the XFL and find a team you can support and stick with them no matter the outcome of the season.  Other sports have “bandwagon” fans and the XFL needs true fans who bleed with their chosen team no matter if they win or lose. The players, coaches and management staff are putting together a great league, and let’s get behind the teams and show them that the XFL has a place in professional sports and can keep football excitement going long into the spring each year.

My Christmas wish is that the XFL builds a special football bond between the teams and their fans, and that this league hangs around for many, many years to come.  The players and coaches are getting ready for the season… let’s get ready with them!

Happy Holidays and bring on February 2020!

Roughnecks’ Offense: WR’s and RB’s

With minicamp beginning to wind down and the 2020 season approaching quickly, the Roughnecks have an offensive arsenal in the making that can rapidly put points on the board. This type of offensive firepower is not only attractive to fans coming to the XFL who want to see high scoring games, but can lead the Roughnecks to be instantly competitive for a league title this upcoming year.

The Roughnecks’ roster is loaded with talent at the wide receiver position. Sammie Coates immediately stands out as a veteran NFL player who has had stops in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Houston, and should help anchor the WR corps. Another experienced WR is Jalen Saunders, who also brings both NFL and CFL experience with him, and has a special connection to Head Coach June Jones, as they both worked together with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL prior to both coming to the Roughnecks. Hunter Sharp and Cam Phillips round out the receiver roster with both having NFL experience, as well as Phillips played for Buffalo during the 2018 season, and Hunter Sharp caught passes from Eli Manning while playing with the New York Giants back in 2017.

The running back position roster is also loaded with talent and professional experience, and will no doubt be led by Andre Williams. Williams, coming out of Boston College, was a Heisman finalist in 2013 and also has NFL experience with the Giants and Chargers, and should lead the way in the backfield for the Roughnecks this season. Akrum Wadley will also take hand-offs in the backfield, and he brings experience from his playing days at Iowa as both a running back and receiver which will help a fast-tempo offense. The one interesting player who can play at multiple positions is Nick Holley. Holley, a product of Kent State, played multiple positions in high school and in college including QB, WR and RB, and could be called upon to serve in various as-needed roles in the Roughnecks’ offense.

It’s easy to get excited about the Roughnecks chances in 2020 with this much talent in training camp.

Roughnecks Mini-Camp Breakdown: QB’s

With mini-camp on a roll and the XFL kickoff now 2 months away, the Roughnecks have an unfolding competition at the quarterback position. H-Town is deep at this roster spot by drafting both Phillip Walker and Connor Cook and the fight for the starting spot on opening Day will no doubt bring out the best in both players.

Phillip Walker brings a strong resume from his days at Temple where he was one of the most prolific passers in school history. Under head coach Matt Rhule, Walker led the Temple Owls to back-to-back bowl appearances and the 2016 American Athletic Conference title. Walker is most remembered for helping the Owls to a 27-10 victory over Penn State back in 2015 which was the first time in 75 years that the Owls beat Coach Rhule’s alma mater.

Battling with Walker for the starting QB spot is Connor Cook.  Cook led Michigan State to multiple Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win over Stanford in 2014 and led the Spartans to the 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.  Cook later was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to have his first start in a playoff game when he led the Raiders against the Houston Texans in the 2017 AFC Wild Card game.

Both players bring experience and success at the college level to the Roughnecks roster and give Coach Jones a chance to build up a high-powered offense that will hopefully be high scoring as well.

Representing H-Town: new XFL uniforms revealed tonight!

For XFL fans, today is the first day of Christmas as the new, highly anticipated uniforms were revealed tonight. Overall, most if not all of the uniforms were crisp and should generate some excitement for fans of this league 2.0 version.

One of the key marketing elements that every professional and NCAA team has to take into account is how will fans react to team uniforms and the XFL seems to take this seriously. Not only are the team names more “serious” in nature nineteen years later, but the team uniforms are by and large imaginative and colorful-key elements in attracting new fans to this league come February.

The Houston Roughnecks unveiled their home and road uniforms tonight as well and the first thing that attracts the eye is the bright silver helmets with the “H” and interlocking oil rig logo in the heart of the helmet. These helmets will no doubt shine brightly on game day (or night) and immediately command respect for the backbone of Houston’s culture-the oil industry.

The uniform colors are a combination of navy blue, grey and silver with the home jerseys being red in the chest, navy blue sleeves and a lone red star on the outside of the shoulders and grey pants, while the road jerseys reverse with a grey jersey body, red shoulders and a lone navy blue star on the outside on the shoulders and navy blue pants. The designers of the Roughnecks’ uniforms no doubt wanted to pay homage to the uniform colors of the Houston Texans, the navy blue of the Houston Astros and the red of the University of Houston Cougars where the Roughnecks will be playing their home games.

Hopefully fans in Houston in particular and the XFL in general will quickly start identifying with the Roughnecks as their sharp uniform look is a step in the right direction for a great inaugural season.