The pieces to the XFL puzzle continue to fall into place as the league continues its rampway towards kickoff on Saturday, February 18, 2023. On Thursday, the XFL officially announced its Coordinator and Director of Player Personnel pairings with their eight head coaches.
The XFL is getting their football house in order.
Many of the coaching/executive names revealed by the XFL were reported here at XFLNewsHub in the last few months. But there were some surprises in the league’s announcements, and longtime NFL DC Gregg Williams is undoubtedly one of them.
The XFL football ops team and their eight head coaches have been in talks with several coaching and personnel candidates for quite some time. Many coaches and executives were angling for opportunities to participate in the league. Some of them were a part of the XFL in 2020, while others have been in this spring pro football league space before.
Three of the XFL’s head coaches from 2020 have returned. Just not in the way, many would have assumed they would.
The importance of the XFL getting their football house in order can’t be understated. The XFL’s football ops team led by Doug Whaley, Marc Ross, Russ Giglio, and the league’s in-house scouting department have laid a lot of the early groundwork, extensively scouting players during the college and NFL draft season.
The XFL’s brain trust has also had meetings with agents and agencies of NFL and other league players for quite some time. But some serious heavy lifting needs to be accomplished in the next phase of league/team building.
The XFL is about to have its first of six player showcases starting next Friday at the University of Maryland. All six of the player showcases have sold out. Four of the league’s six showcases in Maryland (June 17), Florida (June 19), Arizona (July 22), and Texas (July 24) will average close to 200 players each. The players participating are a combination of registrants and exclusive invites.
American National Combines will run all player’s times and drills at each showcase. The other two exclusive showcases are in Hawaii on June 25th and an HBCU-only showcase at Jackson State on July 16. Both are expected to have anywhere from 75-to 100 players working out.
The XFL has also partnered with former professional kicker and current teacher/trainer Nick Novak to run a specialists-only showcase for kickers, punters, and long snappers in San Diego on October 23. The XFL 2023 Draft will take place in November. The league will also conduct supplemental drafts in December and January as more players become available for the XFL pool.
Having each team’s football hierarchy in place now is essential for the player evaluation process in the coming weeks and months. Under the league’s structure, the player personnel directors will collaborate with head coaches on player decisions, and the head coaches will have the final say on game-day rosters. But don’t overlook each team’s coaching staff, particularly coordinators, when it comes to personnel decisions. Offensive Coordinators like June Jones will undoubtedly have their say regarding players at quarterback.
Before we delve into the future about what we still don’t know about the XFL in 2023, let’s break down what we do know based on the league’s team hires.
Bob Stoops Staff (*Dallas*)
The return of Bob Stoops to the XFL might have been surprising to some, especially considering the contentious situation that took place when XFL 2020 went into bankruptcy. And based on those circumstances, some people might also be shocked to see former St. Louis BattleHawks head coach Jonathan Hayes back with the league.
But as chronicled here at Newhub in May, a Jon Hayes and Bob Stoops pairing has been in play since the moment Bob got back into the XFL. Stoops and Hayes have over four decades of history together, dating back to their time at Iowa and Oklahoma. Stoops, the XFL’s first head coaching hire back in 2019, was instrumental in guiding Hayes to the XFL back then.
The well-respected longtime NFL player and coach Jonathan Hayes proved his value as a leader in 2020. It was the first time in his career that he was given an opportunity to lead his own team. With the XFL in 2023, he’s getting a chance to run his offense. A position/title that has eluded the veteran offensive assistant in the coaching ranks.
There is some brother magic going on in XFL 2023. Jon is bringing with him his brother Jay to Stoops staff. Jay Hayes, a longtime defensive assistant, also patrolled the sidelines in 2020 with his brother in St.Louis.
The other brother who has taken the Player Personnel role in Dallas is Rick Mueller. Rick’s brother Randy is Jim Haslett’s DPP. More on that momentarily.
Rick Mueller has a long history in player personnel dating back to the early nineties. He has spent time with three different NFL teams, the CFL, the college ranks, and the United Football League. Mueller led the UFL’s football operations before moving on to the run the Omaha Nighthawks as their General Manager. The broad range of experience that Rick Mueller has could be an asset in his new working relationship with Bob Stoops. It’s an interesting pairing.
Jim Haslett’s Staff (*Seattle*)
Perhaps this is way too premature to declare without a single player drafted or signed. But Seattle is the early favorite to win an XFL championship in 2023.
Like Bob Stoops’s troop, there is excellent symmetry on Jim Haslett’s staff. However, this grouping has not only had success together on the NFL level but possesses a wealth of experience in non-NFL leagues.
Randy Mueller’s recent history in the AAF and XFL will be a great asset.
The former NFL executive of the Year in 2000, Mueller accomplished that honor while teaming up with Jim Haslett in New Orleans.
DC Ron Zook also was in the Bayou with Haslett during that period. So those two defensive compadres will be in lockstep with one another.
A big Maholo is due to Jim Haslett and Randy Mueller, who undoubtedly played a part in June Jones accepting the OC role with this team. June Jones is arguably the best veteran offensive coordinator in XFL 2023. And it doesn’t hurt that three years ago, Randy Mueller was helping June Jones scout and pick players for the undefeated Houston Roughnecks in 2020. Mueller is back collaborating with Jones in their attempt to find the next P.J. Walker.
Jim Haslett has extensive coaching experience in the pros. Mainly in the NFL. But it’s his coaching experiences in the WLAF and UFL that could serve him best in the XFL. After all, Haslett knows the plight of teams, players, and coaches in these alternative leagues. In 2009 with the UFL, Haslett led the Florida Tuskers to an undefeated season and championship appearance. Haslett might be headed towards similar success in the XFL.
Wade Phillips Staff (*Houston*)
DC Brian Stewart is a long-time defensive assistant in the college and pro ranks who has ties to Wade Phillips and the Houston area. Stewart has previously coached with Phillips as his defensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys. It’s a safe bet that Houston is one of the XFL’s best-coordinated defenses.
Wade Phillips went outside the box on his OC and DPP choices. Outsiders or casual followers of Spring Pro Football might not know who A.J. Smith is, but people who have followed the XFL closely in 2020 do. Smith, who coached on the Houston Roughnecks staff two years ago, is one of the more innovative young minds in all of football. He’s getting a grand opportunity to run his own offense in the XFL.
As the creator and owner of VAR Systems, which has been featured on NFL Network and used throughout college and pro football, Smith became the first coach ever to train quarterbacks through the use of a virtual system. The Louisiana-born native has been at the forefront of utilizing technology and analytics as teaching tools.
AJ Smith has worked with quarterbacks such as Gardner Minshew, Jimmy Garoppolo, Josh Rosen, and many others throughout his coaching career. Smith also has experience coaching with June Jones, Hal Mumme, Noel Mazzone, and John Jenkins.
Wade Phillips’s hire of Austin James Smith goes against type on the surface. Typically, experienced coaches like Phillips are expected to be rigid, old-fashioned, and stuck in their ways. But the defensive-minded Phillips is going against perception by signaling out AJ Smith as a preferred choice to help lead his offense in the XFL.
Some people could see the hiring of Marc Lillibridge as Director of Player Personnel as an outside-the-box choice. Based on his resume and history. But the XFL in 2023 is seemingly providing second and first chances for more than just its players.
Lillibridge has a history of his own with Wade Phillips. Once upon a time, the former Iowa State standout, ‘Bridge’ as he is known in football circles, played for Phillips in Buffalo. Bridge and Phillps shared a close relationship with the late Mark Hatley, a coach, and administrator for several NFL teams. Lillibridge and Hatley would visit Wade frequently at every training camp.
Lillibridge has assumed a lot of different roles in the football landscape. From representing players to scouting them over the years. At one point, he was Director of the Lou Fusz training academy in St. Louis, which led insiders close to the XFL to speculate that he could be headed back to that city. Instead, he will be paired up in Houston with local legend Wade Phillips this time as a partner, not a visitor.
Hines Ward’s Staff (*San Antonio*)
The XFL has some experienced head coaches on each staff. So first-time head coaches like Hines Ward must surround themselves with people who have been through the wars already.
Will Lewis certainly qualifies as someone who brings vast experience as a player, coach, and talent evaluator at every level. Lewis has a highly versatile football portfolio. He has been in the NFL, CFL, the original USFL, the WLAF, NCAA, and most recently in the XFL with Houston. And as GM of the Memphis Express in the AAF. A league that Hines Ward was a part of.
Jaime Elizondo is also not a stranger to non-NFL leagues. In the CFL, he won a Grey Cup with Ottawa in 2016 as the team’s offensive coordinator. He most recently served as head coach of the Edmonton Elks in 2021. The Mexican-born Elizondo, who was raised in El Paso, Texas, was offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Vipers in 2020. Elizondo’s play-calling expertise and previous experience in the XFL will be a great help to Hines Ward.
Another coordinator from the XFL in 2020 returns in longtime defensive assistant and former New York Guardians DC Jim Herrmann. The former Michigan player and defensive coordinator won a national championship with the Wolverines in 1997. In that season, Herrmann won the Ryan Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant.
Herrmann also won a Super Bowl championship with the New York Giants as the team’s linebackers coach on February 5th, 2012. He was heavily credited for contributing to the game plan that helped slow down Tom Brady and the Pats’ offense in their 21-17 victory. So much so that in the years followed, Herrmann became a hired gun as a consultant for teams that were looking to beat the Patriots. Late in the 2018 season, Hines Ward’s former team, the Steelers, decided to employ Herrmann’s services in accomplishing that goal. And it worked. Pittsburgh topped New England, beating them 17-10.
Hines Ward hopes that his hired guns in San Antonio will help make his transition as a head coach a smooth one.
Anthony Becht’s Staff (*St. Louis*)
Anthony Becht is reuniting with two of his former NFL teammates and the GM of the team he coached on in the AAF, the San Diego Fleet.
Something tells me it won’t be the last reunion we see on Anthony Becht’s coaching staff.
Dave Boller is another Director of Player Personnel in XFL 2023 that has recent experience in two recent spring pro football leagues. The XFL and AAF. Boller held a similar position with the Dallas Renegades as Assistant Director of Player Personnel in 2020. The long-time personnel evaluator Boller started scouting at the NFL level with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1995 to 1998. During his time with the Buccaneers, the front office drafted four Pro Bowlers in Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, Ronde Barber, and ironically enough, Anthony Becht’s new defensive coordinator Donnie Abraham.
Abraham has been in the coaching ranks since retiring from the NFL after the 2004 season. He has mostly been coaching at the high school and college levels. Like Becht, Abraham also coached as an assistant in the AAF with the Orlando Apollos. This DC job is a big step up for Abraham after working for nearly two decades as an assistant coach. Donnie is finally getting an elevation in his coaching career.
Anthony Becht, who many would consider a neophyte in the coaching world, is continuing the former player turned recent coach theme by entrusting his offense to former Toledo and NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. The 38-year-old Gradkowski has been coaching at the high school level since 2017 and was most recently head coach at St. Francis de Sales School in Toledo, Ohio.
It remains to be seen who else is added to the rest of Anthony Becht’s staff. But on paper, this is the most inexperienced group in the league. The XFL is betting on Becht’s leadership qualities. And Becht is paying it forward by betting on the teaching qualities of two of his former teammates.
Reggie Barlow’s Staff (*Washington, DC*)
Reggie Barlow has a nice eclectic mix at the coordinator spot. On the one hand, Barlow is leaning on his FCS roots by reuniting with longtime offensive coordinator Fred Kaiss. On the other side of the coin, Barlow is going outside his comfort zone and has hired veteran coach Gregg Williams to be his defensive coordinator.
As polarizing as Gregg Williams is to many, there’s no denying his body of work and resume. Reggie Barlow, who has had plenty of success coaching in the college ranks, could’ve easily leaned on coaches he has experience with. But in enticing Williams to join his staff. The former NFL player Barlow is showing he can look outside his circle and identify quality candidates from his former league.
This is Reggie Barlow’s first foray as a head coach on the pro football level. So it’s vital he surrounds himself with a lieutenant on his staff that has been battle-tested, and that’s precisely what Gregg Williams has been. The former NFL head coach and defensive play-caller should be an excellent asset for Barlow.
Von Hutchins might not have the GM experience of other Directors of Player Personnel in the league. But he’s developed a solid reputation in the scouting community. Hutchins, a former NFL DB, has been in the scouting field since 2011. Having worked with the Packers, Raiders, and the NFLPA. Since 2019, Hutchins has been responsible for evaluating senior football prospects for the purpose of constructing the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl roster.
Interestingly enough, several of the XFL’s 2023 coaches have recently participated in the NFLPA game. This is a giant leap for Hutchins, but like many of the XFL’s coaches and executives, it’s a progressive and forward-thinking hire.
Terrell Buckley’s Staff (*Orlando*)
Terrell Buckley’s XFL staff is a unique group. He has an experienced football executive at DPP in Larry Lee and two first-time coordinators on the pro level in Robert Ford and Tony Carter. However, two of these names possess a lot of experience but have been out of the loop for a while.
Larry Lee is a long-time NFL player and executive who was Vice-President of the Detroit Lions for eight years. He has been a deputy executive director at the Fritz Pollard Alliance for the last few years. The organization is named after Fritz Pollard, who, in 1920, became the first African American to coach in the NFL. Lee hasn’t worked in a pro league for two decades. He threw his hat in the Detroit Lions GM job race back in 2020. But didn’t land the position.
Like Larry Lee, Offensive Coordinator Robert Ford has been in the football business for a long time. And like Lee, Ford has been off the radar for an extended period. Out of the coaching game since 2011, Ford has never been an offensive coordinator at any level, despite having a decorated career as an offensive assistant.
Robert Ford, a former college WR who is in the Hall of Fame at the University of Houston, began his coaching career in 1973. Since then, he has coached wide receivers and tight ends for eight college universities and four different NFL teams over a very long career. Ford won three super bowls as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys in the 90s, coaching their tight ends.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Defensive Coordinator Tony Carter. The 36-year-old former NFL cornerback is relatively new to the coaching ranks, entering the space in 2018 through the Bill Walsh fellowship program with the Raiders. Carter, an FSU standout like Terrell Buckley, also coached at Jacksonville University and with the Detroit Lions.
Terrell Buckley’s staff resembles his personality, and he’s marching to the beat of his own drums. What else would you expect?
Rod Woodson’s Staff (*Las Vegas*)
Rod Woodson is reuniting with longtime NFL personnel evaluator Joey Clinkscales. The two spent time together with the Raiders when Rod Woodson was on the team’s coaching staff and Clinkscales was in the front office. By all accounts, the Woodson and Clinkscales pairing might set up shop in the Raiders’ current home, Las Vegas. Clinkscales was LA’s Director of Player Personnel in the XFL two years ago.
Earlier this year, Joey Clinkscales was a part of the Tampa Bay Bandits and helped them during the USFL Draft process. But it has been reported for months by myself that he was jumping ship to the XFL to join Rod Woodson. The early word from sources is that Woodson’s staff could be adding a current member from the USFL when their season concludes. Perhaps in one of the vacant coordinator spots. Stay tuned.
Just like the XFL’s team names, venues, and even the cities. Rod Woodson’s coordinators are “To Be Announced.”
Time to connect the dots. As I reported recently, sources have indicated that Alabama A&M offensive coordinator Duane Taylor is scheduled to join the XFL in 2023. There is a catch; however, Taylor, who has been one of the most successful offensive minds in the FCS, will complete the 2022 season at A&M. Meaning that he wouldn’t join the league until presumably at some point late in 2022. Right around minicamps and training camp. Seeing that Rod Woodson does not have an offensive coordinator listed, it’s reasonable to assume that this is where Taylor will set up residence.
As for the defensive coordinator spot in Las Vegas, a natural connection would be Rod Woodson’s former defensive coordinator with the Raiders, Chuck Bresnahan, who hired Rod on his staff over a decade ago. If Woodson hired Bresnahan to work under him, it would make for a strange sequence of role reversal. But Bresnahan has shown that he is willing to work in alternative pro leagues in the past. Most recently, in the Spring League back in 2020 and in the United Football League with Florida and Sacramento.
However, you can’t rule out the possibility that Rod Woodson could have someone else in mind as his DC. And based on a good number of the league’s hires, it could be an under-the-radar coach that hasn’t had their chance to shine yet.
“To Be Announced” has been the XFL’s messaging for the last couple of months. I suppose that’s much better wording than “To Be Determined.” There are still some unresolved grey spots in XFL 2023’s makeup, but the faces of the league are getting a lot more clear.
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