SALT LAKE CITY — Dennis Erickson compared the Alliance of American Football to a successful development league for another popular U.S. sport. His players, as well as others around the league, see it as a place to recognize and cultivate potential.
The reality of its hope to become a developmental league for football's most successful enterprise, the National Football League, enters the realm of live football this weekend as the Alliance opens its inaugural season with four games.
That includes the Salt Lake Stallions playing on the road at the Arizona Hotshots on Sunday at 6 p.m. MST at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.
“This league is different. It has great financial backing, but having the NFL backing is really, really important. This will be triple-A football, like triple-A baseball. Some of the players you see playing for us, you’ll see playing in the NFL,” said Erickson, the longtime football coach and former Utah offensive assistant who is now the head coach for the Stallions.
League personnel have already begun laying the groundwork for financial success, with a strong alliance with the NFL and former NFL executive Bill Polian and NFL stars Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward in executive roles with the Alliance.
One of the bigger advocates for the Alliance is the Stallions' Josh Woodrum, a former FCS quarterback who most recently played for the Baltimore Ravens in the 2018 preseason, though his chances to earn valuable reps in the NFL have thus far been sparse.
"The college game has changed dramatically over the past 5-10 years, where guys are getting less prepared now for pro systems, so when they get up to the league, there’s not as much of a buffer period," Woodrum said. "You have to be able to play right away, and if you can’t play right away, you better be in the perfect situation with the perfect team that will give you just a little time to develop.
"The biggest thing with this league is we’re not trying to compete with the NFL; we’re trying to complement the NFL. We’re trying to fill the void (of getting) players prepared for the professional level."
The league's eight teams — which also include Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego — recently completed training camp in San Antonio in preparation for the 10-week regular season. There are plenty of unknowns about the league, including who's favored to raise that first championship trophy in late April.
“Until somebody starts playing, it’s hard to tell. It’s going to be a very competitive league. We’ll find out more about ourselves this Sunday when we play Arizona,” said Erickson, who came out of retirement to coach Salt Lake.
One thing is already known: the Stallions will have a decidedly Utah flavor. There are 17 athletes who played at Utah colleges on the 52-man Salt Lake roster, including 10 former Utes, five former Cougars and two former Aggies.
“It’s going to be comfortable in the league because I’ll be playing with guys I’ve played with in the past. They’re your friends and they make it a lot more fun,” said former Utah offensive tackle and current Stallion Jeremiah Poutasi.
If the latest unofficial depth chart is any indication, expect those Utah ties to play significant roles with the Stallions in their inaugural season, especially on defense.
Six locals on defense are currently listed to start in Week 1: defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (Utah), defensive end Tenny Palepoi (Utah), linebacker Trevor Reilly (Utah), linebacker Anthony Williams (Utah State), free safety Micah Hannemann (BYU) and cornerback Will Davis (Utah State). Linebacker Gionni Paul (Utah) and defensive tackle Handsome Tanielu (BYU) will provide depth.
On offense, Poutasi is slated as the starter at left tackle, next to left guard Salesi Uhatafe (Utah), while guard Tuni Kanuch (BYU) will provide depth. Former Ute Matt Asiata, who played six years as an NFL running back primarily with the Minnesota Vikings, is in the mix to earn carries for Salt Lake.
Tight end Anthony Denham (Utah) is projected as another possible starter, along with Tanner Balderree (BYU) at fullback. Three local wide receivers — Utah's Dres Anderson and Kaelin Clay, as well as BYU's Jordan Leslie — fill the depth chart at the position. Clay is out for Sunday's game with a hand injury.
"We’ve got a lot of players from Utah … and they all contribute," Erickson said.
The Stallions know what it takes to be a physical team under the 71-year-old Erickson.
"We’re going to want to run the ball and hit some play action," Woodrum said. "A lot of the other teams in this league … you notice more of them are going towards that spread-type aspect. We’re probably one of the only teams that’s not going to do that. We want to run the ball at you. We want to be physical."
Erickson likes what he sees in the trenches for his Stallions.
"We’ll be very versatile as far as our offense is concerned and be 50-50 or even 60-40 run because our strength is our offensive front," he said. "Our front four (on defense) is our strength, and we’ll play a lot of man coverage."
The Alliance has secured broadcast rights for every game during the league's inaugural season, including deals with CBS, TNT, NFL Network, CBS Sports Network and Bleacher Report Live. The Stallions' opener at Arizona on Sunday will be broadcast in primetime on NFL Network, one of 19 games the network will televise in the Alliance's first season.Comment on this story
About the Hotshots
Several players on the Arizona team will be familiar to fans of the Pac-12, as former Arizona and Arizona State players dot the roster, like former Wildcat linebacker Scooby Wright and former Sun Devil defensive tackle Will Sutton. College football fans will also recognize Hotshots quarterback Trevor Knight, who played at both Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
Arizona is coached by Rick Neuheisel, who spent years in Pac-12 territory coaching at places like UCLA, Washington and Colorado.