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While it’s quiet time in the NFL until training camps open next month, the USFL will conduct two weeks of playoffs beginning this weekend.
So, PHNX fans, you might be wondering why this is being written about. Well, one of the teams that qualified for the postseason has a Cardinals connection.
Former Cardinals player and scout Lonnie Young is the first-year general manager of the Pittsburgh Maulers, while head coach Ray Horton was the Cardinals defensive coordinator for two years (2011-2012).
Furthermore, Young ended up with the Maulers after contacting USFL executive Jim Popp on behalf of longtime NFL scout Dave Razzano, who was with the Cardinals from 2006 to 2009. Razzano’s son Jay is currently a Cardinals coaching assistant on Jonathan Gannon’s staff.
Popp and Young both attended Michigan State in the early 1980s and after deciding to hire Dave Razzano, Popp got back to Young to see if he would be interested in working in the league.
Young reflected on deciding to get on board after being out of the game for three years and running PrideStaff here in Phoenix.
“My wife (Melanie) really kind of talked me into it,” Young said this week from Canton, Ohio, which was one of four hubs for the league this season after all teams were in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2022. “She said, ‘You love football. Let’s just look at it and we’ll figure the rest out. Help some kids and be around the game. You’ve been a part of football your whole life. What is there to think about? Don’t you want to go have some fun?’
“I’m glad it worked out for Dave and it’s been a positive experience for me.”
It was also a learning experience for Young, who played 12 seasons in the NFL with the Cardinals (1985-90), Jets (1991-93 and 1995-96) and Chargers (1994) and then worked as a scout for 18 years with the Jets (2002), Cardinals (2003-07) and Ravens (2008-19).
He said, “It was definitely a different experience for me in every way. In the NFL, you have a great deal more resources available to you. Here, staffs are smaller and everyone has to wear a lot of hats. It also took a little getting used to being in a hotel for (almost) four months.
“We were very fortunate to be located in the Canton hub (with the New Jersey Generals) because the facilities were outstanding with multiple fields available for us to practice on.”
He also had to adjust to a big change when Kirby Wilson decided not to return as head coach. Yes, the same Kirby Wilson that was the Cardinals running backs coach from 2004-06 and in 2018 and was one of the reasons Young decided to accept the Maulers job because they were with the Cardinals at the same time.
“I wanted to help Kirby,” Young said, “and there was only one place to go and that was up” because the Maulers were 1-9 in 2022.
Young said Horton had to quickly become familiar with the USFL process and there was a lot to learn because of many different rules.
“Like any first-time head coach, there was a little bit of a learning curve just managing the guys and managing your time,” he said. “Our team continued to play hard all year for several reasons. For personal reasons, playing hard for one another and then as the season progressed, I believe Ray got more familiar with the players, players got more familiar with Ray and more familiar with the system.”
With a 2-6 record in the 10-game season, the Maulers then won their final two games while allowing only 13 combined points in a 19-7 win over the Michigan Panthers and 26-6 in the regular-season finale over the Generals. With both the Panthers and Maulers at 4-6, by virtue of Pittsburgh’s season sweep (they beat the Panthers 23-7 earlier in the season), the Maulers won the division and will host the Panthers Saturday in Canton for the North Division title at 5 pm Arizona time on NBC.
Defense and special teams have been the catalyst for the team’s improvement, which was Young’s design.
Defensive coordinator Jarren Horton, Ray’s son, was named the league’s assistant coach of the year this week, while linebacker Kyahva Tezino, cornerback Mark Gilbert, safety Arnold Tarpley III, kickoff returner Josh Simmons and punt returner Isiah Hennie were all named to the all-USFL team.
The Maulers allowed the fewest points in the league (178) and only two other teams allowed fewer than 200. The first-place South Division Birmingham Stallions (8-2) allowed 196 and the second-place New Orleans Breakers (7-3) allowed 184. The Maulers also led the league with 20 takeaways and were tied for second with 24 sacks.
Tezino totaled 94 tackles and two interceptions, Gilbert led the league with four interceptions and Tarpley had three interceptions and 42 tackles. Simmons (862 kickoff-return yards) and Hennie (297 yards on punt returns) set league records.
Especially in the USFL, where it can be difficult to find offensive linemen, but also on all levels, Young said, “The quickest way to become competitive is to spend your resources on defense and specialists. It’s very difficult to be a super successful offense. There’s so many things that have to go right in order for a play to be effective. Protections for one and a lot of things have to happen for an offense to click on all cylinders.
“But defensively, just play hard, smart fast and physical and I think that gives you the quickest chance to keep the game intact. That’s what we’ve been able to do with our defense.
“Yes, we’re the Maulers and we want to maul people defensively and give us our best chance to win.”
While acknowledging the quarterback is always crucial and the Maulers have gotten improved play from Troy Williams, Young noted the importance of finding the right skill set at the position.
Young laughed and said, “The good Lord just doesn’t make enough 6-5, 315-pound offensive linemen, so it forces you to consider having a quarterback who is very athletic and who, when the play breaks down, can extend the play and possibly turn a negative play into a positive play just on athleticism alone.
“As opposed to playing with the dropback pocket passer, who you can’t protect long enough to throw the ball deep or downfield om a consistent basis. In some cases, you’re going to have to be creative. Move the pocket, give the quarterback some run-pass options because it’s hard to find linemen. Our defense gives us a chance every week and our offense has improved and they have found our identity.”
Young is truly pleased for the players as they prepare for Saturday after last week’s victory.
“Our team is ecstatic,” he said. “I’m really happy for the players that worked so hard because they had a long year last year, winning one game. Going into the last game this season, the guys had something to play for and they were fired up about that. We all were.”
During the XFL season that ended last month, the 4-6 Arlington Renegades won the league championship. Might history repeat itself with the Maulers?
“It’s hard to beat any team three times in a single season and there’s good teams in the South,” Young said. “But, we have a chance and that’s all you can ask for.”
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: email@example.com
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