The USFL will have a new president as it enters Year 2 of its rebrand. Daryl Johnston, a three-time Super Bowl champion during his playing days with the Dallas Cowboys, has been promoted from executive vice president to president.
Johnston, also a longtime analyst for the Fox NFL broadcast booth, takes over for Brian Woods, who stepped down as USFL president in order to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors. As vice president, Johnston played an integral role in the USFL becoming the first spring league in nearly 40 years to complete its season in 2022 and return for a second season.
"I think that Year 1 was very successful," Johnston recently said in an interview with CBS Sports. "I think more of what you're trying to do is establish a stand-alone league that provides a non-traditional route back to the NFL. ... We're about football, we're about the why, what motivates the guys, what you are trying to accomplish here and trying to do everything we can from a coaching and from an exposure standpoint to give them an opportunity to continue to chase that dream."
The league certainly achieved its goal last year of providing its players with NFL opportunities. Over 180 USFL players worked out for NFL teams last season, with 60 players signing NFL contracts. More than 20 players ended up on NFL rosters, with KaVontae Turpin, the USFL MVP last year, earning All-Pro honors with the Cowboys last season.
"The success of your model causes you to reload your workforce 25, 30, 35% every year," Johnston said.
Fortunately for the USFL, both quarterbacks who played in last year's league championship game -- J'Mar Smith of the Birmingham Stallions and Case Cookus of the Philadelphia Stars -- will be back for their respective teams. Mike Abernathy, a veteran safety who spent time last fall with the Packers and Falcons, is back patrolling the secondary for the Houston Gamblers.
After playing each of their regular-season games in Birmingham, the USFL has expanded into four hubs for 2023: Birmingham, Detroit, Canton and Memphis. Two teams will share hubs this season based on their proximity to their home cities.
Johnston is especially excited to have games played this year in Ford Field, which also hosts the Detroit Lions and will host the USFL's Michigan Panthers and Philadelphia Stars. The is the second time the Panthers have played home games in Detroit. The original Panthers played their home games at the Pontiac Silverdome.
"That's the last championship in the early go-around with the USFL," Johnston said of the Panthers. "It was easy to tap into some of that support, some of that passion with the Michigan Panthers. Very excited to see what they do."
Johnston is also anxious to see if the Pittsburgh Maulers can create a home-field advantage while playing games this season in Canton's Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, which is less than 100 miles from downtown Pittsburgh. The Maulers have also adopted black and gold while matching Pittsburgh's other pro sports teams.
"It just seemed like a natural fit with Pittsburgh being close by," Johnston said about stationing the Maulers in Canton. "The change in the color scheme, getting into that traditional gold and black of what all the Pittsburgh teams are, I think was a great move by our people at the USFL."
The USFL has several rules and regulations that separates itself from the NFL, including the ability to retain possession after a score if the offensive team converts a 4th-and-12 play from their own 25-yard-line. The league is also upping its safety measures by allowing players to wear ProTech helmet covers during practices and games.
"What it does, in eliminating the potential for some concussive and concussive hits, is very impressive from the data and it's obviously better than a helmet alone," Johnston said. "We felt that it was necessary from our players."
The USFL's second season will kick things off with a double-header on April 15. The Stars will take on the Showboats at 4:30 p.m. ET, and the defending champion Stallions will host the New Jersey Generals at 7:30 p.m. ET.