With the 2023 XFL season now only two weeks away, there is a growing feeling of excitement among fans, players, and coaches alike. However, even though there is plenty of entertainment on the horizon, it’s important to not forget the roots of this league. The first version of the XFL kicked off in 2001, lasting a single season before being revived almost two decades later.
The 2020 edition of the XFL marked the birth of the Houston Roughnecks, who will be returning after a three-year hiatus. The 2020 team only played five games before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down league operations, yet they went undefeated during that stretch. The original Roughnecks team had some very talented individuals that went on to find success elsewhere, a handful of which will be covered in this article series. To start, we’ll look at five players from the offensive side of the ball.
PJ Walker, QB, Temple
With PJ Walker, there isn’t much of an introduction needed. All XFL fans, especially Roughnecks fans, likely remember his dominance in the Run-and-Shoot offense led by June Jones. It’s safe to call him the unofficial MVP of the 2020 season, as he led the league in passing yards (1,338) and touchdowns (15). Once the season came to a stop, Walker got the call from the NFL, which wasn’t much of a surprise.
He signed with the Carolina Panthers, due in large part to his old college coach (Matt Rhule) being hired by the team. Currently, he is still with the Panthers despite Rhule being fired early into the 2022 campaign. Over three NFL seasons, Walker has appeared in 15 games, starting 7 of them. His record as the starter is 4-3, although he has still struggled at times. Walker’s TD-INT ratio (career) is 5-11, and he also has four fumbles to his name.
While it will be hard for Walker to climb out of a backup or even third-string role, he has still shown some positive flashes in his game as of late, most notably throwing a 62-yard touchdown pass to DJ Moore against the Atlanta Falcons with just seconds left on the clock. Many believe that this pass was one of the best of the entire 2022 season, putting Walker with some elite company.
Cam Phillips, WR, Virginia Tech
Phillips had a great connection with PJ Walker back in 2020, and became the XFL’s leading receiver as a result. The Virginia Tech product had 9 touchdowns on just 31 catches, averaging nearly 15 yards every time the ball touched his hands. Following the abrupt end of the season, Phillips again joined forces with Walker on the Carolina Panthers, but was signed towards the end of the preseason and did not make the final roster.
From there, progress was slow for Phillips, as he signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (CFL) in June of 2021. After being cut during just the third week of training camp, he got a second chance with the rival Toronto Argonauts. The Argonauts added Phillips to their practice roster, and he was not elevated until the final week of the 2021 season.
His outlook for 2022 looked much the same, but injuries to the receiving corps helped Phillips get a larger role. He finished the year playing and starting 12 games, catching 40 passes for 515 yards and 3 touchdowns. Phillips was also pivotal during the ensuing Grey Cup run, being the leading receiver in the championship game (4 catches, 96 yards). Even if he had a steep drop-off after his time with the Roughnecks, Phillips appears to have regained his footing, and will look to continue the progress in 2023.
James Butler, RB, Iowa
Despite playing in a pass-first offense during the 2020 season, Butler still led the XFL in rushing touchdowns (sixth in yards). He will mostly be remembered by fans for the “Houston Hop,” similar to the “Lambeau Leap” celebration coined by the Green Bay Packers.
Just like Phillips, Butler has also found a new home in the CFL with the BC Lions. After signing with the team at the end of 2020, he would make his debut in 2021, going on to record a modest 101 carries for 497 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and 2 touchdowns.
However, his 2022 season was far better, as he recorded 210 carries for 1,060 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 7 touchdowns. In the season opener against the Edmonton Elks, Butler rallied the Lions to a 59-15 win thanks to his 141 total yards and 4 touchdowns.
He has continued to become more versatile as his career continues, tacking on 92 catches for 627 yards and 5 touchdowns over the two CFL seasons. Ever since going undrafted in 2018, it has been an uphill battle for Butler, but his time with the Roughnecks proved to be the start of something special.
Kahlil Lewis, WR, Cincinnati
Lewis was a solid role player for the Roughnecks in 2020, catching 24 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown. While the numbers aren’t eye-popping, Lewis was one of the team’s top draft picks during the initial process in late 2019, and still deserves a spot on this list.
He joined the XFL in 2020 having pit stops with the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks on his resume. The next pro opportunity for Lewis wouldn’t come until February of 2021, when he signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (CFL).
Ironically, he was cut on June 10th, the same day that Cam Phillips signed with the team. Since then, Lewis was a member of the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars, although he spent much of the 2022 season on the inactive roster.
Nick Holley, RB/WR, Kent State
Holley was a fan favorite of the Roughnecks in 2020, and a near perfect fit for the Run-and-Shoot offense. The impact definitely wore off, as he was recently signed by the team again for their 2023 campaign. Despite being listed as a running back on the Roughnecks roster, his actual role varied frequently, logging just 2 carries compared to 21 catches.
Garrett Owens, who is currently listed as a tight end for the Roughnecks, will likely play a similar role alongside Holley this season (motioning across the formation often and operating out of the slot). After his first go-around in Houston, Holley reunited with receivers coach AJ Smith in The Spring League (TSL) as a member of the Conquerors. In 2021, he signed with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, appearing in three games. Holley hasn’t found as much success compared to some of the other players on this list, but XFL 3.0 gives him the best shot at recapturing the 2020 glory.
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