USFL 2023 season preview: Fresh faces, fresh start for Pittsburgh Maulers?

Ray Horton takes over a Pittsburgh Maulers team that went 1-9 last year for the worst record in the USFL’s first season back, and he’ll barely acknowledge the past as he works to rebrand the franchise in 2023.

“We only referenced last year’s record one time,” said Horton, 62, a longtime NFL assistant who won one Super Bowl as a player with the Cowboys and two as a Steelers assistant. “I said ‘Last year, we won one game.’ I said ‘We.’ I didn’t say ‘They.’ It’s kind of a new beginning, and all we’re preaching is fundamentals and doing things right … Are we better? We think we are, but we’ll find out.”

For Horton, those basic principles are not only X’s and O’s on the field but making sure his players treat everyone with respect, from teammates to the women in their lives to everyday interactions with people. Horton, who last coached in the NFL with Washington in 2019, takes over for Kirby Wilson, gone after one season, with a coaching staff that includes his son, Jarren, who returns as defensive coordinator.

The biggest name on the roster is former Alabama and NFL linebacker Reuben Foster, a first-round pick with the 49ers who has not played since 2018. His promising NFL career was derailed after two seasons by a domestic violence arrest (charges were later dropped) and a serious knee injury in 2019.

“We know who he is and who he was, and we were very happy to get him,” Horton said. “He adds validity to our defense, to our team. One day the players were watching highlights, and it was amazing to watch. They were in awe. That was a cool moment for us to realize this guy is very, very good. Before he even walks in the door, people know him. He’s been a joy to be around.”

The team will now play its home games in Canton, Ohio, closer to its home city and less than two hours from Pittsburgh, and there’s much opportunity for improvement. Pittsburgh scored the fewest points in the USFL last year (147) and gave up the most (243), though there’s an influx of new players on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback remains an uncertainty, choosing between James Morgan, 26 and a former Jets draft pick, and Troy Williams, 28, who has three pass attempts in the Canadian Football League. Last year’s top two rushers, Madre London (415 yards) and Garrett Groshek (329) are both back for 2023. Receiver Bailey Gaither, who led the team with four touchdown catches last year, got a look from the Ravens in the NFL preseason but is back and will be “one of the studs of the league,” Horton said.

Can the Maulers get fans in Canton to support them as a team? Horton was drafted by the Bengals and coached with the Browns, so he knows Ohio football fans and is hopeful the team will be embraced. He’s throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at a Guardians game this week as the Maulers are busy preparing for this weekend’s season opener against the New Orleans Breakers in Birmingham.

“I like where we are on paper, but we just have to prove it,” he said. “It’s going to help us to have a home base where the fans can identify with us, especially when we start winning. They’ll say ‘This is just winning football that we expect our teams to do.’ We talk about the Pittsburgh heritage of winning Super Bowls, and now the Bengals are back winning and Cleveland’s fan base is outstanding. They’ve always been so gracious to me, and you can see the support we’re getting from the triangle of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and we want to give back to that community.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.  

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