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Every USFL Team’s Most Improved Player for Season 2

Heading into the second season of the USFL, the league was facing a new enemy: Retention. Their top players, most notably KaVontae Turpin of the Generals, and Tae Hayes of the Stallions, were heading to the NFL. On top of this, a new batch of free agents were popping up through ‘22 NFL draftees who had been on practice squads through the fall. The biggest asset to all of the teams during the offseason however, was organic growth through the organization. With that, this will cover all of the current teams’ “most improved” players of those who were in the league in 2022. North Division Pittsburgh Maulers (S Eli Walker):

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - APRIL 30: Eli Walker #3 of the Pittsburgh Maulers stands with teammates during the national anthem prior to the game against the Philadelphia Stars at Ford Field on April 30, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/USFL/Getty Images)

After only producing one win in 2022, the Maulers have significantly improved as a unit going into 2023. Even then there is still a clear gap to be covered. Ray Horton has established his team into a hard nose defense first team. Yet in a division stacked with so many high powered offenses they struggle to keep up. That being said, there are plenty of bright spots to talk about.

The most deserved of the spotlight here is Safety Eli Walker, Walker has grown up alongside this defense that added plenty of firepower including former Alabama Linebacker Reuben Foster. Walker is on pace to double his tackle total and already has an INT and a sack. His play is just another example of how the Horton’s have successfully used what they were given, added to it, and made it into statistically the best defense in the league.

Michigan Panthers (QB Josh Love):

CANTON, OH - MAY 28: Michigan Panthers quarterback Josh Love (12) looks to pass the ball during a USFL game against the New Jersey Generals on May 28, 2023 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Panthers finally exceeded their win total from last season after a midseason stumble. The Panthers are a unique team of this idea since not a single Panthers player had initially made a 53 and many were available to return. However with Mike Nolan replacing Jeff Fisher changes had to be made. Additions like that of former Ole Miss DL Breeland Speaks have led to dominating individual performances from the Panthers, but only time will tell if it will lead to a postseason run for Michigan

As much as Quarterbacks are overvalued and should not be part of these lists, Josh Love deserves an exception. Aside from their great contributors being the same ones from last year (RB Reggie Corbin, WR Joe Walker, LB Frank Ginda). Josh Love sat behind Shea Patterson and Paxton Lynch in 2022 and when he was in had the lowest QB rating (67.2) of any starter the Panthers put out. Love has turned that around and currently has a near 60% completion percentage, 10 TDs, and a 86 QB rating. His improvement has been one of the overlooked storylines due to the teams’ shortcoming in the homestand, but be wary of #12 as the season starts to wind down.

Philadelphia Stars (DB Amani Dennis):

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - APRIL 15: Wide receiver Vinny Papale #13 of the Memphis Showboats cannot make a catch as cornerback Amani Dennis #29 of the Philadelphia Stars defends during the 1st quarter of the game at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium on April 15, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Hickey/USFL/Getty Images)

Coming off of a championship appearance the Stars appeared to be one of the teams most likely to win the North. With a sputtering offense through 4 weeks, 1-3 on the year, something had to give. Now, after 3 gritty wins they sit atop the North at 4-3 and have a championship rematch with Birmingham in Week 7. Case Cookus and co. are ready for another run, but how long can they keep the hot streak going?

Sometimes with organic growth, it is not improvement but rather entering a new position. Amani Dennis is proof of this. In 2022, Amani played second fiddle to all USFL DB Channing Stribling. Yet in 2023, he has owned the role as the front man. He has 3 INTs and a pick six on the season and is on pace to improve his personal tackle record from last season. Dennis could be a key contributor to a defense wanting to make a flash in the postseason.

New Jersey Generals (WR Cameron Echols-Luper):

BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA - APRIL 15: Cam Echols-Luper #18 of the New Jersey Generals carries the ball as Nate Holley #36 of the Birmingham Stallions defends during the game at Protective Stadium on April 15, 2023 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Andy Lyons/USFL/Getty Images)

The Generals were 9-1 in 2022 and although they had a disappointing loss to the Stars in the North Championship game they seemed poised to return with the same vigor that filled them last season. Even after their initial loss to the Stallions, it seemed like all signs pointed to New Jersey repeating as the North’s regular season leader. After knocking down Michigan and taking the reins of 1st it seemed like fate, but since then they have tumbled all the way down to 2-5 and a few losses from elimination. Will the Generals fall or will they rise to the occasion and finish the season strong.

This next mention is one of the reasons articles like this one are important, Cameron Echols-Luper had 3 catches for 38 yards in 2022. He now has 16 catches for 249 yards and 2 TDs. Every time they go his way it is for big yardage and even though he is filling the role left by Alonzo Moore (who is now filling Turpin’s role), there is still plenty of respect to a player who has sat in NJ’s system and is now shining in this season.

South Division Memphis Showboats (DE Jeff McCulloch)

BIRMINGHAM, AL - APRIL 22: Memphis Showboats linebacker Jeff McCulloch (33) lines up on defense during a USFL game against the Birmingham Stallions on April 22, 2023 at Protective Stadium in Birmingham. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The former Bandits have equaled their win total from ‘22 and are hoping to make a push and host a playoff game in the Bluff city for the first time since the original USFL. Todd Haley has righted the ship ever since getting blown out in Birmingham and now all of his chips are in front of him and ready to run the table into the playoffs in an extremely tough South division.

Jeff McCulloch is another guy who has let time in the system show his skills in primetime. Jeff is one of the few players of this season to have a defensive TD, and on top of that he has two of them. Jeff has been a part of a dominant defensive line and has quadrupled his tackle total from last year, as well as adding 3 sacks. McCulloch is one of the few defensive lineman in the league who can totally alter the game in just one snap. One of several huge assets for the Showboats defensive and definitely the most noticeable improvement from ‘22 to ‘23.

Houston Gamblers (RB Mark Thompson):

CANTON, OHIO - JUNE 03: Mark Thompson #7 of the Houston Gamblers runs with the ball against the Pittsburgh Maulers during the first half at Tom Benson Hall Of Fame Stadium on June 03, 2023 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/USFL/Getty Images for USFL)

After losing Kevin Sumlin, the league decided to bring on Curtis Johnson as the new head coach of the Houston Gamblers. Like Horton for the Maulers, Johnson brings an older flair to the game, a flashback of sorts. Yet, whatever he is doing seems to be working. After starting the season off 0-2, they have earned their way to 5-3 and in control of their own destiny. Coach Johnson and the Gamblers have something brewing and would love to play villain to any of the other teams wanting a playoff spot.

This is the one pick that if it went unmentioned the entire article would be invalidated. Mark Thompson seemingly out of nowhere has gone from pretty solid RB1 to elite status overnight. From a 4.1 YPC and 2 TDs to 4.9 YPC and 11 TDs that small 0.8 YPC difference has led to a world of hurt for the rest of the league. Easily one of the top RBs in the league this may be one of the easiest picks of any team. He simply played along with the system and is now in a position to potentially win All-USFL honors or, as he may prefer, a championship.

New Orleans Breakers (TE Sage Surratt):

BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA - MAY 27: Sage Surratt #13 of the New Orleans Breakers is tackled by Nate Brooks #26 of the Birmingham Stallions after a reception during the fourth quarter at Protective Stadium on May 27, 2023 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Stew Milne/USFL/Getty Images USFL)

John DeFilippo has completely flipped the Breakers into winners. A team previously led by the tandem of Larry Fedora and Kyle Sloter, the MBT-Flip Breakers were one of the most dominant teams of the first 4 weeks of the season. Since then, they’ve entered a slump that seems hard to get out of, but with FA Wes Hills lighting up the scoreboard, they might be able to get back on their feet after all.

The Breakers made a lot of great FA acquisitions and through the coaching change did not retain a ton of playmakers, that being said, there is one player that fits the bill. Sage Surratt, it is understood that he was a Stallion, but with the Breakers he has come into a form that Stallions fans could have only dreamed of. In 2022, Surratt had 148 yards on 11 catches, His 2023 numbers are 475 yards on 41 catches. The connection MBT and Surratt have can be paralleled to the connection of Sloter and Sal Cannella but that just seems underselling how special it has been. As a TE, Surratt has been used in a slot where he can be the big play guy, the third down guy, as well as the safety valve. One of the most undervalued acquisitions and definitely one of the top improved players across the league.

Birmingham Stallions (LB Quentin Poling):

BIRMINGHAM, AL - APRIL 15: Birmingham Stallions linebacker Quentin Poling (59) during the USFL game between the Birmingham Stallions and the New Jersey Generals on April 15th, 2023 at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The defending USFL Champions went 9-1 in 2022 and felt the burn of players leaving the hardest as key contributors like DB Tae Hayes and LB DeMarquis Gates went to NFL teams and others were lost in the cycle. Then as the season rolled around, QB J’Mar Smith, RB Bo Scarborough, and WR Marlon Williams all went down. Even LB Scooby Wright has been battling injuries through the Stallions campaign. Still though, Skip Holtz’s crew have weathered the storm and are sitting atop the South with a 5-2 record and a few games from clinching a playoff berth.

In 2022, Quentin Poling had 6 tackles on the season and started behind Gates, Wright, and Buck over the course of the season. Poling was LB4 on an elite defense and was fine with doing his part and sticking with it. After Scooby went down, he stepped up to the plate and filled the gap for the Stallions. After Week 7’s performance against the Breakers he earned DPOTW honors due to his 11 tackles, 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Poling could easily end up being one of the top LBs in the league after it is said and done, but there is a lot of football still to be played.

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