A few weeks ago, the XFL officially announced staff hires for all eight of the league’s head coaches and their teams. While some are familiar faces from 2020, others are getting their first taste of a great opportunity. For the city of Houston, the XFL proved to be a breath of fresh air when they first arrived a few years ago.
The Roughnecks went undefeated in five games before the pandemic, and were a great success story in the spring football world. While many fans wished it could have lasted longer, they’ll only have to wait a few more months before a franchise returns to the city. Whether or not the Roughnecks name will be kept is still unknown, but what matters right now is who will be controlling operations and making key decisions towards another dominant run.
With the head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and director of player personnel now set in place, let’s dive deeper into their background and stories.
Head Coach: Wade Phillips
Phillips is a familiar face in the Houston area, and even more familiar to any fan of football over the past 40 or 50 years. Having attended the University of Houston, Phillips started his coaching career as one of UH’s graduate assistants. He would work his way up the ranks, and eventually land his first defensive coordinator gig (at the professional level) with the New Orleans Saints in 1981. He became a head coach for the first time in 1993, having been promoted from a defensive coordinator role with the Denver Broncos.
For the rest of his career, he bounced between both positions for several NFL teams. Perhaps his most successful season came in 2015, when he returned to the Broncos as the defensive coordinator. The team won Super Bowl 50, headlined by a strong performance from linebacker Von Miller. Phillips was named AP NFL Assistant Coach of the Year for his efforts, a well-earned honor after all of his years dedicated to the game of football.
Most recently, Phillips was the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams from 2017 to 2019, helping guide that team to a Super Bowl appearance as well. All in all, the XFL nailed the Phillips hire, as he will be immediately recognized by most fans and players alike. Additionally, he is great representation for Houston as a whole, having spent most of his early years in and around the city. From a strictly coaching perspective, Phillips brings plenty of valuable knowledge and experience to the XFL, and it’s not outrageous to say he’s the best coach in the league (with plenty to be proven, of course).
Offensive Coordinator: AJ Smith
For those who followed the XFL back in 2020, Smith should be a familiar name. He served as the receivers coach for the Roughnecks, and is now back in Houston with an expanded role. The jump from position coach to coordinator is quite a large one, but Smith is more than ready. The Roughnecks’ receiving core was one of the brightest spots on the entire team, and always needed to be on their “A” game in June Jones’ run-and-shoot system.
While Smith has been an offensive coordinator in the past, this will only be his second time doing it at the pro level. Given that he’s only 33 years old, this accomplishment becomes even more impressive, but it doesn’t mean that he lacks experience. In his early years, Smith played quarterback in high school, breaking both Louisiana and Mississippi state records for passing yards in a championship game. At one point, he was mentored by current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson.
After his first go-around with the Roughnecks, Smith was an offensive coordinator in The Spring League, helping head coach Jerry Glanville and the Conquerors to a #1 overall offensive ranking and highest QBR across all league passers. His most recent job was being the offensive coordinator at Tyler Junior College, where he led the team to another #1 offensive ranking, this time on a national level.
Quarterback General Booty had a SWC record 8 touchdown passes in a single game, and recently committed to Oklahoma. Smith had a great resume heading into his first XFL stint, and has only improved it since then. Now, he will hold the same position as the coach he used to play under (June Jones), a unique part of the XFL’s growing history. Smith’s offense should be fun and fast-paced, with a lot of similarities to the 2020 team. This could be the part that fans really connect with, and it couldn’t come soon enough for some.
Defensive Coordinator: Brian Stewart
Stewart has a long history being both a defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, doing so in college and the NFL. Stewart and Wade Phillips have a history together, being on the same staff with the Chargers and the Cowboys. Simply put, Stewart already knows what Phillips wants, and the two should work well together.
While the previous XFL team in Houston had more focus on the offense, the second iteration could be more defensive-minded with someone like Stewart in control of the unit. Stewart’s best coaching successes came during his time at Syracuse and Maryland (first stint), with Phillips’ influence being sandwiched in between.
Most recently, Stewart was the defensive coordinator at Maryland, where he had previously spent three seasons (2012-2014) holding the same job. While he may not have the same recognition as other defensive coordinators in the league (Jay Hayes and Gregg Williams – I’m looking at you), this hire is just as important as any other due to the previous connection with Phillips. The one-on-ones in practice between defensive backs and wide receivers should be a real treat, and hopefully it translates well to in-game action.
Director of Player Personnel: Marc Lillibridge
Lillibridge has been in the scouting departments of NFL, NFL Europe, CFL, XFL (1.0), and AFL teams. He was the former assistant director of personnel for the Green Bay Packers, a position he held for over four years. Later in his career, Lillibridge began a transition into media, becoming a writer at Bleacher Report and radio broadcaster for ESPN.
Most recently, he was a linebackers and long snappers coach at Washington University in St. Louis, assisting the special teams unit. Lillibridge used to be a football player himself at Iowa State, and has since gone on to have an impact in nearly every corner of the game. It’s clear that this is not only Lillibridge’s passion, but something he has a true understanding of.
Given his wide variety of experiences, Lillibridge should be pivotal when it comes to finding talented players and overall roster management. He rounds out a staff filled with incredibly smart individuals, all of which should help put Houston back in the position they were in a little over two years ago.
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