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St. Louis Battlehawks vs. Michigan Panthers - UFL Week 1 Preview

The revamped St. Louis Battlehawks will hit the field for the first time in 2024 this Saturday, traveling to Ford Field to take on the Michigan Panthers in the first weekend of the United Football League (UFL). The Battlehawks were formerly in the XFL and the Panthers in the USFL before the two leagues merged in December of 2023.

The Battlehawks might as well be the blueprint for building a fanbase for a secondary-league team. After the NFL's Rams left for Los Angeles, St. Louis was in deep need of football, and this was evident in the support the Battlehawks garnered in 2023. 

St. Louis finished the 2023 season with a 7-3 record but did not qualify for the playoffs. The Battlehawks are listed by DraftKings as the favorite to win the league championship, which will be held in St. Louis on June 16.

Their quest for the championship will begin with their match against the Panthers, coached by long-time NFL defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The Panthers finished with a 4-6 record in 2023, the second-worst in the USFL, but they still made the playoffs despite a weak North division. 

Roll With the Changes

With so much roster turnover, though, gathering much from last year's results isn't easy. Each team underwent dramatic makeovers this season, but the Battlehawks, coached by former St. Louis Ram Anthony Becht, only seemed to have improved from last year. The team returned 2023 XFL MVP A.J. McCarron and added plenty of talent through the league dispersal draft. DraftKings lists St. Louis as a 6.5-point favorite over Michigan. 

But the Panthers' roster has also improved from 2023. Boston College alumni E.J. Perry will be getting the start at quarterback this season for the Panthers after starting one game for the team last year. 

The team added several playmakers this offseason, including running back Wes Hills. The USFL's leading rusher in 2023, Hills played for Slippery Rock University in 2018 and ran precisely like an actual slippery rock would. A powerful downhill runner, he's challenging to bring down but also somewhat evasive at 218 lbs. 

Hills will be a good test for the St. Louis defense, the worst run defense in the XFL in 2023. This offseason, the group made some major additions with defensive end Austin Faoliu and athletic edge rusher Pita Taumoepenu. Faoliu played for the Seattle Sea Dragons in 2023 and was a member of the All-XFL team, while Taumoepenu was the USFL's 2023 Defensive Player of the Year for the Vegas Vipers. Both should help out the run unit. 

In the receiving room, the Panthers added former Philadelphia Star Devin Gray. The five-year NFL player has some dangerous ability in the slot with impressive speed. His 502 receiving yards in 2023 for the Stars were the eighth most in the USFL.

Gray will be paired with Trey Quinn in the slot. Quinn was the Mr.Irrelevant pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but injuries derailed his career. In 2023, he was the Panthers' leading receiver with 438 yards and four touchdowns. His route running and shiftiness make him difficult to defend. It will be interesting to see how the Panthers use Quinn and Gray in the slot.

The Battlehawks' defensive secondary will be led by returning starter Lavert Hill and the recently signed Channing Stribling. The two will reunite this season after being teammates at the University of Michigan in 2016. Hill earned All-XFL honors in 2023, and Stribling led the USFL with seven interceptions in 2022. 

Regardless of the weapons in the receiving game, the Panthers will likely try to beat the Battlehawks with the run game. Not only to test a run defense that might still be gelling together but also to keep the ball out of the hands of McCarron and the explosive St. Louis offense. 

McCarron has the most experience out of any quarterback in the league, and with the playmakers at his disposal, the Battlehawks' offense can win in many different ways. The Battlehawks should have a diverse passing attack with receivers Hakeem Butler, a 6-foot-5 deep-threat, Darrius Shepherd, a shifty weapon over the middle, and possession receiver Blake Jackson. The team also signed Jahcour Pearson, who led the XFL in 2023 with 670 receiving yards, but he'll be out the first few weeks of the season due to a leg injury he suffered in training camp.

Former New York Giant Wayne Gallman will likely lead St. Louis' run game. The former Clemson Tiger rushed for 682 yards in the 2020 NFL season and will replace Brian Hill in the backfield.

Uphill Battle for the Ops

McCarron and the Battlehawks are favored in this game primarily because of their continuity. Even teams in the NFL who have an entire offseason to learn the playbook and become familiar with their teammates look sloppy early on in the season. UFL teams had even less time to come together as training camp only began on February 27. The Panthers will have more of a learning curve with a different starting quarterback, running back, and mostly different receivers. The Battlehawks, however, retained most of their starters and coaching staff. It will likely take an elite performance from Hills and the Michigan defense for the Panthers to pull off the upset.  

Cover Images via Coach Mike Nolan, The Detroit News, and Coach Anthony Becht, The St. Louis Post Dispatch.

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