So far, so good in the USFL for Stallions coach Skip Holtz

0 Comments

Entering Week 5, the Birmingham Stallions are the USFL’s sole undefeated team.

They’ve won by overcoming second-half deficits in all four of their games.

They’ve won by putting up the points, averaging a league-best 24.8 per game.

They’ve won with both of their quarterbacks, Alex McGough and J’Mar Smith.

They’ve won with an ex-soccer player, Brandon Aubrey, being a steady kicker in a league where some kickers have been anything but.

And last week against the Tampa Bay Bandits, they won with defense – holding the Bandits to a single offensive touchdown and 158 total yards in a 16-10 victory.

The Stallions have shown their mettle in starting the season 4-0. But their head coach, Skip Holtz, feels there’s still work to do.

“I think we’re close in a lot of areas, but I think if we can ever put it all together and we can start clicking on offense and humming around on defense the way we are – I think we’re a talented football team that has a chance to be really good,” Holtz told NBC Sports Wednesday ahead of his team’s next matchup with the Philadelphia Stars (Sunday, 12 p.m. ET on NBC).

“When your defense is playing as good as it is, we just have to make sure offensively that we’re not the ‘Bad News Bears’ turning the ball over, throwing pick-sixes, putting the ball in danger and giving our defense a short field. If we’re going to [lose], let’s at least make somebody beat us.

“And I think offensively, we’re getting closer. We’re getting to the point where I start to feel like we can really open it up if we need to and we’re not going to turn the ball over.”

USFL Week 5 – Birmingham Stallions (4-0) vs. Philadelphia Stars (2-2)

  • When: Sunday, May 15 at 12:00 p.m. ET on NBC
  • Where: Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama
  • Live stream: NBCSports.com

The 2-2 Stars perhaps present both an opportunity and a challenge.

The Stars’ defense has allowed an average of 23.8 points (tied for league-worst) and 356.3 net yards (next-to-worst in league) per game. However, cornerback Channing Stribling leads the league with four interceptions.

And their offense remains more than happy to test the secondary (league-high 68.5% passing plays), even as Case Cookus has taken over as starting quarterback for the injured Bryan Scott.

With his offense seeking to rebound from its worst outing of the season, Holtz goes back to the need to protect the ball and give his defense – led last week by linebacker Scooby Wright (six tackles, one sack) – better opportunity to dictate things.

“When you have a defense like we have and a kicking game like we have, my mindset is, ‘Let’s not turn the ball over, let’s not put our defense in a bad position, and let’s make people go 80 yards against our defense,'” he said.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about the 2022 USFL season – Teams, key dates, TV schedule, how to watch, and more

Meanwhile, as Holtz and the Stallions try to refine their winning formula, the locals have responded to what they’re seeing from them on the field.

All eight USFL teams are based in Birmingham, Alabama for this first season. But only the Stallions have a true home-field advantage, drawing sizable crowds to Protective Stadium for their games each week.

They have effectively become their 12th man. We shouldn’t be surprised. Alabama is a football-crazy state after all. But while most of us think of the Crimson Tide and Tigers, the city of Birmingham itself has hosted numerous teams from alternative pro leagues since the 1970s – including the Stallions from the original USFL (1983-85).

From the new USFL’s Opening Night on Apr. 16 – when the Stallions won a 28-24 thriller over the New Jersey Generals – the “Magic City” has had their team’s back.

“We were struggling on offense in the first half and it seemed like they started cheering louder for the defense,” Holtz said of the crowd at that first game. “And the defense kept us in it until the second half when the offense got stuff going. I think we not only learned a lot about our team and their makeup and their competitive nature, but we also learned a lot about this fanbase.

“They were awesome and have been awesome ever since. The opening game obviously had a lot of buzz to it, but our crowds have been great each and every week and it’s been very loud. [It’s been] a very football-knowledgeable crowd.”

RELATED: 2022 USFL scores – Results and games schedule for the United States Football League

It’s left Holtz optimistic about the future of the league, which plans to put all teams in their respective home cities in the years ahead.

It’s also added to his belief that coaching at the pro level has been “a breath of fresh air” after spending his entire coaching career at the college level.

Before joining the Stallions, Holtz was head coach at Louisiana Tech for nine seasons. But he was let go ahead of the Bulldogs’ 2021 season finale after his team went 3-8 in the season’s first 11 games.

Eventually, Holtz received a call from USFL president of football operations Brian Woods, who asked to talk with him about the new league. Holtz was impressed and decided it was time to give pro ball a try.

He hasn’t regretted it, especially with having players that are older, more mature, and able to focus solely on football – as opposed to those in college, who must balance the gridiron, the classroom, and campus life in general.

“Friday, when you get done in college, you take them to a hotel, you take them to a movie, have a team meeting that night, wake up the next morning, have a meeting, have a walkthrough, make sure everything doesn’t go in one ear and out another,” Holtz explained.

“With these (pro) guys, when you’re done with practice on Friday, they go home to their wife and kids. They study their playbook. They come back the next morning – they’re all business. You don’t have to worry about everyone clowning around and you’ve got to get them serious and re-centered for game day. They’re ready to play. It’s a real testament to these players and the leadership we have on this team.”

Like his players, Holtz sees the USFL as an opportunity. It’s somewhat of a different attitude than the one his father had when he transitioned from college to the pros.

Long before he led Notre Dame to the 1988 National Championship, Lou Holtz became head coach of the NFL’s New York Jets in 1976.

But Lou’s tenure was unsuccessful. His Jets went 3-10 before he resigned with one game left in the season. It was his lone coaching appearance at the pro level.

“(Lou) always says he went to pro ball with a ‘Let’s see if I like it’ attitude, not ‘Let’s go make this work,” Skip Holtz said. “And the biggest thing he told me is, ‘Enjoy it. Jump in with both feet and go enjoy it.'”

He’s taken his Dad’s advice to heart. And as he and the Stallions seek to build a winning tradition, he says he’s enjoyed building relationships with these players as much as anywhere he’s been.

To him, that’s the best part of all.

“Everyone has a story,” he said. “They all have a why. They’re all here for a reason. They’re here because they love this game. They’re here because they want another opportunity. They’re here because some of them may get an opportunity in the NFL. Others might play in the USFL for two or three years.

“But they love the game and that’s the thing where I’ve enjoyed so much about it… Being around guys that are so passionate about the game, and guys that are so professional about their trade.”

How to watch/stream USFL Week 5 – Panthers vs. Bandits, Stallions vs. Stars

Control what you can control: How journey through the fire led Generals RB Darius Victor to the USFL

0 Comments

“Life feels good when you’re winning,” says one of the men responsible for the Generals’ success last season, running back Darius Victor. “I’m playing the game I love, my team is winning games, and that’s all a man can ask for.”

Victor was named the USFL’s Offensive Player of the Year after leading the league with nine rushing touchdowns, ranking third in rushing yards (577), and fourth in yards per game (57.7). At 5’8″ and 209 pounds, with 30-inch quads (yes, you read that right…30 inches), the Generals RB is a wrecking ball on the field.

“Thick thighs save lives,” Victor recalls as he laughs about the Week 5 game-winning play. “I had to put them to use and push him [Perez] over to the endzone.”

With his light-hearted demeanor and self-described goofball personality, it would be hard to fathom the hell Darius Victor has walked through to get to where he is today.

“I’m not even supposed to be here”

Victor, who is one of seven children (4 brothers, and 2 sisters), was born in 1994 in a refugee camp in Africa’s Ivory Coast after his parents, Gary and Patricia, fled the first Liberian Civil War.

“Have you ever seen the movie Blood Diamond?” Victor asks, “That’s the type of environment I was born into.”

Victor and his family literally ran for their lives, hiding and sleeping in bushes for safety when their country was being torn apart by violence and bloodshed. Nearly 250,000 people — men, women, and children — lost their lives in Liberia’s civil war.

“I was too young to remember what happened at the time,” Victor told NBC Sports. “But from the stories my parents have told me about what we were running away from, I’m not even supposed to be here.”

The Victor family moved to the U.S. in 1999 and lived in Manassas, Virginia before moving to Hyattsville, Maryland, in 2002. After leaving everything behind, Gary and Patrica worked tirelessly to provide for their family and while their parents were out just trying to make ends meet, all seven of the Victor siblings Velma, Earl, Kevin, Darius, Leon, Shaka, and Nicole — looked out for one another. Helping with homework, making sure everyone was fed, and involved in activities. For Kevin and Darius in particular, that activity was football.

Sibling Rivalry

“My older brother Kevin was my role model growing up,” Victor recalls. “I used to go with him to football practice and he was pretty good. He was a Boys and Girls Club legend. I had to compete with him in everything and I wanted to be better than him in everything that I did. So I started playing football and tried really hard to be better than him. Having that role model to follow is what really gave me a love for the game.”

The duo, four years apart in age, went on to play football at Northwestern High School, sharpening each other with their competitive nature both on and off the field. But everything changed in December 2011, when Kevin was tragically shot and killed walking home from the local community center after playing basketball with friends — just one block away from his family’s apartment.

“Losing a child and a sibling is crazy,” Victor said. “It was tough but it made us even closer as a family. It made me go even harder because Kevin was always the tough one on me. When we were kids I would always cry on the football field if something didn’t go my way and Kevin would straighten me out.”

“His passing has given me a mindset of toughness and resiliency. I’m always thinking about him and trying to live up to the level of confidence that he had in me.”

In October, just 10 months after Kevin’s passing, Darius was in the midst of a breakout senior season when the Victor family’s apartment burned down.

“The toughest part wasn’t even losing our stuff but it was seeing my Mom and Dad cry again. That was so tough on me.” Darius recalls. “At that point in my life, I had to decide to never question God, believe that everything happens for a reason, and control what I could control.”

Towson Tough

With family at the forefront of his mind, Victor decided to play football at Towson University, where he earned a scholarship, roughly 45 minutes away from his hometown. He earned First-Team All-CAA honors in 2014, rushing for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns on 250 carries, but says he also a learned new level of toughness from his coaches and teammates that he still keeps in contact with today.

“Coach Reno Ferri really believed in me and that gave me so much confidence,” Victor said. “But there are so many guys there that really spoke into my life including my teammates FB Dreon Johnson, RB Terrance West, and coaches Rob and Jared Ambrose.”

Stay Ready

Victor, who only played in 4 games during his senior year of college due to a toe injury, went undrafted after graduating from Towson in 2017 but had several opportunities with NFL teams. Victor received an invite to the New York Jets rookie minicamp, the New Orleans Saints training camp, and even landed a spot on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad but unfortunately, those opportunities didn’t end the way he wanted them to.

However, the Hyattsville native didn’t let that discourage him.

“I’ve been through so much in life that I’ve grasped the concept of controlling what you control,” the 28-year-old said. “One of my mottos is to stay ready so you don’t have to get ready so doing that and just trusting God made me available mentally and physically for the next opportunity.”

For Victor, that meant showing up to train long hours after working a 9-5 job every day as a Sales Operations Manager at Penske and staying consistent no matter what — even when the CFL signed and cut him a day before he was supposed to leave for Canada (2019) and when the XFL season came to a sudden halt in the midst of a global pandemic (2020).

But when the USFL finally called, selecting him in the 6th round of the Supplemental Draft, he was ready. Victor says his love for his family and his faith in God is what fueled him during the hard times in life.

“Knowing all that my family has been through and the fact that we’re not even supposed to be here, every day I get is a blessing and I just want to make them proud. They are my why, ” says Victor, who is often spotted wearing merchandise with the phrase “Keep God 1st” on his clothing.

“I don’t care if you are a millionaire or dirt poor…life is going to life, but if you put God first everything will work itself out and that’s how I live my life.”

First and 10 with Darius Victor

To what do you attribute the New Jersey Generals’ early success?

“We have great coaching and great leadership. The team is very close and we hold each other accountable because we all have the same goal. We’ve all been through similar experiences. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked to 30 or 38 players who’ve been cut multiple times too and that creates a bond.”

“Also, we have a little chip on our shoulder because in preseason we were projected to finish last in the league due to our ‘talent level’, so shout out to whoever released those preseason polls because it made us hungry.”

If someone were to be a fly on the wall in the locker room, what’s one thing that they’d be surprised to find out about the New Jersey Generals?

“After a win, we do a ‘hip, hip hooray’ chant. Coach Riley goes ‘hip hip’ and the rest of the team goes ‘hooray’. It’s the greatest thing ever.”

What’s your role on the team?

“I’m one of the older guys on the team so I consider myself to be one of the leaders and the ‘special teams captain’. Coach always jokes around and says I’m the heart and soul of the team. I just want to do everything I can to make this team successful.”

How would you describe your style as a running back?

“I think I’m pretty balanced but the thing that separates me the most is my physicality. I don’t think a lot of human beings can run the football like me. If you just watch the tape or just watch the football games, that’s how I stand out.”

Pre-game hype song?

“I have to listen to the song “I’m a dog” by Gucci Mane that puts me in my zone.

Gameday superstitions?

“I have a superman Jesus cut-off shirt that I wear under my pads every game. I wouldn’t really call it a superstition but I wouldn’t feel right without it.”

What’s one thing about yourself that not everyone knows?

“I’m addicted to Candy Crush. I’m on level 4,650.”

Favorite Football player?

John Johnson, he’s the starting safety for the Cleveland Browns and also my best friend”.

Favorite Movie?

“Oh, Forest Gump. Easy.”

Favorite pair of kicks?

“Jordan 1s, I can’t pick one specific pair.”

Just Keep Going: Stallions RB CJ Marable makes a policy of perseverance

0 Comments

RB CJ Marable was instrumental in helping the Birmingham Stallions become the inaugural USFL champions in 2022. Marable who was named the USFL Week 5 Offensive Player of the Week, was Birmingham’s leading rusher finishing the season with 401 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns.

While his highlight reel was, quite literally, on display this past season, his journey to playing professional football has been far from easy.

A Dream is Born

Torrance Marable Jr., who goes by the nickname CJ, laced up his first set of football pads at the age of 5. Some of his earliest memories include tossing the ball outside with his father, Torrance Marable Sr., who doubled as his all-time quarterback in outdoor pickup games. It was in his hometown backyard in Decatur, Georgia that the elder Marable told his son he was capable of taking it to the next level, instilling in him a new passion for the game.

“He just looked at me one day and said, man, you’ve got it,” CJ recalls. “Just stay focused, stay consistent, and the sky is the limit. And that confirmed everything for me. I fell in love with the game and believed I could be whatever I wanted to be because my Dad said it.”

Marable, a two-star recruit coming out of Towers High School, initially signed with Arkansas State as a grayshirt, but in the weeks leading up to his expected start date, he says the communication with the school just stopped, unexpectedly. Arkansas State wasn’t returning his calls and when they finally called him back, they no longer had a place for him on the team.

Pivoting along the Path

Wanting to keep his football dreams alive, Marable pivoted his focus to playing at the junior college level. But a last-minute offer to play at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina — with a full scholarship — was one he couldn’t refuse. Marable’s 2017 freshman season was explosive: the Georgia native started all 11 games and led the Big South with 1,038 rushing yards only to find out that the school was pulling back on its football team and would become a non-scholarship program by 2020.

With his dreams once again the line, it was a familiar time for Marable – time to pivot. He transferred to Coastal Carolina, a place he says shaped him into a better person on and off the field.

“We had this acronym B.A.M., which stood for Be a Man,” Marable told NBC Sports. “Coach Jamey Chadwell taught us to be accountable for whatever we do and to stand on our own two feet. He told us that if you quit on football and can’t go through the hard times here, then there’s no way that you’ll be able to deal with the hard times in life.”

Deferred but not Denied

Marable finished his collegiate career with a streak of 32 straight games with at least one reception. In his three years at Coastal Carolina (2018-2020), he rushed for 2,691 yards with 41 total touchdowns, assembling impressive enough stats and film to sign as an undrafted free agent contract with the Chicago Bears in 2021. But once again, things didn’t go as planned and Marable was released before the start of the regular season.

“I wasn’t comfortable where I was because I felt like I should have been drafted,” he said. “I felt like I had a point to prove. I did what I was supposed to do but it just wasn’t in my favor at the time. I never wanted to question God so I just had to stay consistent, stay focused, and continue to grind to get to where I wanted to be.”

It was in this period, dialed in on training and staying pro-ready with tunnel vision focus, that he heard about the USFL, not just once but on three separate occasions. First, the idea came from his manager, who he calls “Hood”, who thought it would be a good opportunity for the running back. His trainer for the NFL combine agreed. But Marable brushed the idea off both times, wanting to stay focused on that potential NFL opportunity. It wasn’t until his girlfriend’s father brought it up again that Marable took it as a sign to do his own research and take the USFL seriously as a path forward in professional football.

Just Keep Going

Looking back, Marable credits his strong support system, specifically his Mother, Sabrina Sims, for helping him stay positive in periods of disappointment and uncertainty.  “She reminded me that every storm I’ve been in, I’ve got out of.”

“Life is going to hit you,” the 25-year-old said. “Nothing is going to go as planned but never give up. If I could go back in time and give my younger self advice it would be these two simple words: keep going. God’s got you, never give up.”

Leading by Example

Marable, who welcomed a baby boy in March with girlfriend Bayley Randall, says he wants to instill that lesson in his son Trae (Torrance Christopher Marable III).

“When he grows up I want to be that example and show him that Dad never gave up. Even though I failed at times the difference between me and anybody else is that I just never gave up.”

The Stallions running back is currently working towards a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology. He wants to help other athletes develop when his football career is over — which, at the rate he’s playing, doesn’t look like it’ll be anytime soon.

First and 10 with CJ Marable

Pregame ritual?

“I love to listen to music, my favorite artist is Future so that’s all I play. But my go-to hype-up album is “Thug Motivation” by Young Jeezy.

What is your role on the team?

To get the offense rolling. My strengths include blocking the ball out the backfield, my vision, and my speed.

To what do you attribute the Birmingham Stallions’ early success?

“I’m really impressed with how well we get along with each other. We laugh with each other. We joke with each other. We are a family. We spend our off days and downtime together. The offensive linemen and the running backs go out to eat every Thursday or Friday depending on the week.”

“Honestly, it feels great when everything you work for is paying off. But in the back of our minds, we know that we have to stay consistent. We have a bullseye on our chest. Everybody wants to beat the Birmingham Stallions.”

What is it like being the only USFL team to play in front of a home crowd?

“I feel like the fans are really coming out there and doing their job and it’s helped us a lot, especially on third downs you can just hear them yelling ‘defense, defense’. We’re the first professional football team for Alabama so it feels great to be able to just go out there and put on for the city of Birmingham.”

Favorite Running Back?

Reggie Bush. When I was at Carolina, we played against BYU on “College GameDay”, and I had a great game. Later during the week, I got interviewed by Reggie Bush so that was a cool experience.”

Favorite Food?

“Wings. All flats.”

Favorite Movie?

“Friday”

Favorite Vacation Spot?

Hawaii

How would your family and friends describe you as a person?

“I’m a driven person and I won’t let anything stop me from getting to where I want to be in life. I’m also funny and outgoing.

Name one thing about yourself that not everybody knows about you.

“I enjoy fishing.”

RELATED: Control what you can control – How journey through the fire led Generals RB Darius Victor to the USFL