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J'Mar Smith and Case Cookus have three things in common. First, both quarterbacks led their teams to last year's USFL Championship Game. Second, each suffered an injury in the title game that led to a premature exit: Smith was sidelined just after halftime, then after Cookus left the game with a broken leg, the Birmingham Stallions scored two quick touchdowns to pull off a 33-30 victory over the Philadelphia Stars in what was a highly-entertaining finale

The third thing Smith and Cookus have in common? They both spoke with CBS Sports ahead of the USFL's upcoming second season -- four decades after the league's original run from 1984-86. Both interviews are part of our 2023 USFL season preview that includes breakdowns of each team ahead of this weekend's opening slate of games (check out the full schedule here). Our preview begins with Smith and the defending champion Stallions, whose title defense will begin this Saturday night, April 15, against the the visiting New Jersey Generals in a matchup between two teams that went 9-1 during the 2022 regular season. 

After all the league's regular season games were held in Birmingham last year, three new venues have been added to the mix for 2023: Memphis, Canton and Detroit.

Below we'll dive into a preview of each team, including the hub they'll call home, followed by a look at the schedule. For all our USFL coverage, click here.

Birmingham Stallions

  • Last season: 9-1, defending champs, defeated New Orleans and Philadelphia in playoffs
  • Home hub: Birmingham, Alabama (Protective Stadium) 

Skip Holtz's team returns about 80% of last year's championship roster. That includes Smith, who said he is roughly 10-15 pounds lighter than he was last year. Smith attributed the weight loss to extra cardio work and eliminating sweets (especially Gushers) from his diet. 

A former baseball player who was drafted by the Padres back in 2015, Smith has taken something out of each chapter of a career that is truly unique. That journey included an offseason spent with the New England Patriots shortly after the team parted with Tom Brady and just prior to them signing Cam Newton

"We had meetings from 6 a.m. to probably 2 p.m.," Smith said of his time in New England. "That was the most I've ever stared at a computer screen. The thing I am appreciative of is it made me a better football player, understanding football, understanding schemes, the holes of defenses and offenses and how we needed to move the ball. 

"I really appreciate Coach Belichick and definitely Coach McDaniels. He made sure everything was his way, the Belichick way and the Patriot way."

Smith, who said that former Tennessee Titans standout Steve McNair was his favorite quarterback growing up, is hoping the weight loss will allow him to "enjoy the scrambling life a little bit whenever the opportunity comes." He is also expecting more of a contribution this season from receiver Marlon Williams, who last season finished second in the USFL in touchdown catches and third in receiving yards. 

Going 1-0 each week was the Stallions' mentality throughout their championship season, and it continues to be their mantra this season. While repeating is one of the hardest things to do in sports, Smith and his teammates are up to the challenge. Taking advantage of each day, Smith said, will go a long way in determining whether or not the Stallions can repeat. 

"We have a bullseye on our back," Smith said. "Every team wants to take down Birmingham. Every team wants a shot at Birmingham. We know what comes with this, so the thing we have to do is go out and execute at a high level in practice so that it can translate to game time." 

Running back Bo Scarbrough and linebacker Scooby Wright are two other key members of Birmingham's championship team that are back for the 2023 season. Both players scored touchdowns in last year's championship game win over Philadelphia. 

Philadelphia Stars 

  • Last season: 6-4, defeated New Jersey in playoffs, lost to Birmingham in championship game
  • Home hub: Detroit (Ford Field) 

The Stars won four of their last five regular season games before upsetting the Generals in the first round of the playoffs. Philadelphia had Birmingham on the ropes before Cookus' injury turned the game's momentum in the Stallions' favor. 

"Bummer" is the word Cookus used when looking back at the situation. While the injury and subsequent loss hurt, it didn't take away from the experience of playing in the championship game. 

"It was electric," Cookus said of the atmosphere inside Canton's Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium that day. "I talked to a few people and my wife had talked to some people in the stands, and they had traveled from all over to come watch the game. It was so awesome to see. I think there was someone there from Arizona that had watched me in college. Things like that, it's what makes sports special. And that's what's so cool about the USFL is that it's given an opportunity to a bunch of guys to create those moments." 

Cookus' offseason included a successful rehab of his injury. It also included a seven-week stint with the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.

"It was something I've been working towards, so it was awesome to see some of the hard work I put in, to rehabbing my injury to being picked up and signed to an NFL team," Cookus said. "Matthew (Stafford) was so nice to me. He took the time to just explain little things here and there to me. Coach McVay, he's a personality. I think he kind of surprised me with how cool of a guy he really was. Our whole quarterback room was a great room to be in. And then Baker (Mayfield) came along. I didn't know much about Baker, so being able to get to talk to him and get to know who he is, he was a great guy and I learned a lot from him as well."

Like Smith, Cookus has used each stop along his football journey as a way to improve himself as a football player. His pro career has included stints with five NFL teams and an additional year in the Canadian Football League. It has also included his time as the Stars' starting quarterback, a position he does not take for granted. 

"Especially with the injury, I felt like I just have to keep working," he said. "That's the one great thing about football is you're never done learning and you're never done getting better. 

"For me, it was really pushing hard this offseason to rehab my ankle and also clean up my football. There's a lot of stuff that I wanted to work on. It's great knowing that I'm coming back and returning to a team that I know." 

Cookus' football achievements include being the 2015 recipient of the Jerry Rice Award, an award given annually to the best freshman player in NCAA Division I. He's hoping to accomplish the ultimate team goal before his playing career is over. 

"Winning a championship is what it's about," he said. "Whether it's USFL, Super Bowl, I think winning a championship in some capacity. It's a hard thing to do at any level. We were close later year, and we're going to try to make a run at it this year." 

Cookus will again be aided on offense by running back Matt Coburn II, who scored nine total touchdowns last season while becoming one of the league's best red zone scoring threats. 

New Jersey Generals 

  • Last season: 9-1, lost to Philadelphia in the playoffs 
  • Home hub: Canton, Ohio (Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium)

The Generals lost one of their key players from last year's team to the NFL in Cowboys All-Pro return specialist KaVontae Turpin.  New Jersey does have several other key players from last year's squad coming back, however, including reigning Offensive Player of the Year Darius Victor. Led by Victor and fellow running back Trey Williams, the Generals averaged a league high 161 yards on the ground in 2022. They'll look to follow that same recipe for success in 2023. 

New Jersey's defense will again be led by hard-hitting safety Shalom Luani, who is one of the preseason favorites to win USFL Defensive Player of the Year. 

New Orleans Breakers 

  • Last season: 6-4, lost to Birmingham in the playoffs 
  • Home hub: Birmingham, Alabama (Protective Stadium) 

A playoff team last season, the Breakers have a new coach this season in John DeFilippo, who won a Super Bowl in 2017 as the Eagles' quarterbacks coach. The Breakers' defense, which allowed the fewest points in the USFL last season, will continue to be led by defensive tackle Reggie Howard Jr., who was included in last year's All-USFL defensive team. The defense is also welcoming back linebacker Jerod Fernandez, pass rusher Jordan Brailford and safety Greg Eisworth II. 

The Breakers' offense will be led by wideout Jonnie Dixon III and quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson. Dixon led the Breakers in receptions and touchdown catches last season. Bethel-Thompson, 34, comes to New Orleans after winning two Grey Cups with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts. 

Houston Gamblers 

  • Last season: 3-7 
  • Home hub: Memphis, Tennessee (Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium) 

Houston will be coached this season by Curtis Johnson, a veteran NFL assistant coach who won a Super Bowl with the Saints in 2009. He also had a four-year stint at Tulane's head coach. 

The Gamblers will have two of their top players back from a season ago in running back Mark Thompson and linebacker Beniquez Brown. Thompson's success last season led to a tryout last winter with the Green Bay Packers. Brown actually started his pro career with the Packers before spending time in the XFL (in 2020) and the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. 

Michigan Panthers 

  • Last season: 2-8
  • Home hub: Detroit (Ford Field)

The Panthers are one of three teams who will play home games in their hometown. Leading Michigan this season is former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, who is replacing fellow former NFL head coach Jeff Fisher. On offense, Nolan will likely lean on Reggie Corbin, who was one of the USFL's top rushers in 2022. A defensive mind, Nolan will work closely with linebacker Frank Ginda, who had a whopping 90 tackles last season. Ginda's pro career includes time with the NFL's Dolphins and Saints. 

Pittsburgh Maulers 

  • Last season: 1-9
  • Home hub: Canton, Ohio (Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium) 

Pittsburgh underwent a noticeable makeover this offseason. The team adopted Pittsburgh's black and gold color scheme while also going through a coaching change. The Maulers will be coached this season by Ray Horton, a longtime NFL coach who has a player won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992. He won two more Super Bowls as a member of the Steelers coaching staff in the 2000s. 

USFL president Daryl Johnston is hoping that Pittsburgh fans will make the trip to Canton to provide the Maulers with a home field advantage in 2023. The defense is expected to be good, but the jury is out on a Pittsburgh offense after the unit struggled to produce last year. 

Memphis Showboats 

Home hub: Memphis, Tennessee (Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium) 

Memphis makes its USFL return after not being part of the league's reboot last season, replacing the Tampa Bay Bandits. Showboats fans will quickly take notice of wideout Derrick Dillon, who spent time with the Cleveland Browns last summer following a successful campaign with the Bandits. Dillion enjoyed a successful college career at LSU that included catching a touchdown pass from Joe Burrow in the Tigers' Fiesta Bowl win over USF in January of 2019. 

2023 USFL schedule

The league kicks off Saturday, April 15, with a 10-week regular season, followed by the playoffs. The top two teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs, with semifinals on June 24-25. The USFL Championship Game will be played in Canton on July 1.

Here's a look at the Week 1 games:


Philadelphia Stars at Memphis Showboats (Memphis)

Saturday, April 15, 4:30 p.m. ET


New Jersey Generals at Birmingham Stallions (Birmingham)

Saturday, April 15, 7:30 p.m. ET


Michigan Panthers at Houston Gamblers (Memphis)

Sunday, April 16, Noon ET

Pittsburgh Maulers at New Orleans Breakers (Birmingham)

Sunday, April 16, 6:30 p.m. ET

For a look at the entire 2023 schedule, click here. And be sure to check out the standings each week right here.