13 Jan

Wes Hills powers Breakers’ undefeated start

Wes Hills got an up-close look at former All-Pro running back David Johnson during his brief time with the Arizona Cardinals. Four years later, Hills has looked strikingly similar to Johnson during his heyday while powering the New Orleans Breakers to a surprising 4-0 start.

The USFL’s leading rusher, Hills recently set the modern league’s single-game records after piling up 191 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries in New Orleans’ Week 3 win over the defending champion Birmingham Stallions. Facing the talented New Jersey Generals this past Sunday, Hills ran for two scores in New Orleans’ 20-17 win.

“This is surreal,” Hills recently told CBS Sports. “I’ve never been in a situation like this, being 4-0. Or being around such a great group of guys. … When you have a great group of guys that came together in such a short amount of time, and all of our goals align, and we can go out and put on a show for New Orleans, it’s amazing.”

If you’re looking to lean more about Hills and the streaking Breakers, you’ve come to the right place. The No. 1 team in our weekly USFL power rankings, Hills recently shared what has contributed to his and his team’s success so far.

  1. New Orleans Breakers (4-0)
    Daryl Johnston, the USFL president and Cowboys fullback during the team’s dynasty years, must have been beaming with pride when he saw Hills’ touchdown runs against New Jersey this past weekend. Like Johnston and the “Great Wall of Dallas” offensive line did numerous times for Emmitt Smith back in the day, the Breakers’ offensive line allowed Hills to score two touchdowns without being touched.

The only person who probably appreciates what the Breakers’ line is doing more than Johnston is Hills, who heaped praise on his teammates up front throughout the interview.

“The O-line is doing phenomenal right now,” Hills said. “(Starting offensive tackle) Paul Adams blocked two people for that first touchdown. … We’ve got a lot of dogs up front that are just opening everything up for me.”

The Receipts ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/SFNkoKVr2R

— New Orleans Breakers (@USFLBreakers) May 7, 2023
Playing complementary football, Hills said, has been one of the keys of the Breakers’ success so far. He added that the leadership of 34-year-old quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson has also played an integral role in New Orleans’ fast start. Hills was already familiar with Bethel-Thompson prior to the two becoming teammates in New Orleans. They were former members of rival teams during their shared time in the Canadian Football League.

“I watched him for the past two years do his thing. It’s good to be on the other side of it,” Hills said of Bethel-Thompson, who won two Grey Cups during his time in the CFL. “He’s a great leader, great person, even better father. He’s a great guy. It means a lot to be able to play with a veteran that has won championships and has been so successful at his position. … He came in and took control of the offense.”

Hills has also cherished the chance to play for Breakers coach John DeFilippo, who after over 20 years in coaching is getting his first opportunity as a head coach.

“I love him,” Hills said of his coach. “He blessed me with this opportunity to come here and showcase what I can do. He’s a real players coach. … He’s not wound too tight. He’s a pretty laid back guy, but when it’s time to focus up and he needs to reel us back in, he does that with no problem.

“He has the team’s respect, by far. Everybody in that locker room loves him.”

It’s safe to say that Breakers fans feel the same way about Hills. Shirts were recently made celebrating Hills’ early success (he is currently trying to get one for each of his offensive teammates). Hills (who along with Johnson has tried to pattern his game off of Hall of Fame running backs Eric Dickerson and Gale Sayers) is just two touchdown runs away from the surpassing the franchise’s single-season record set by Marcus Dupree, the former Oklahoma standout who first put the Breakers on the map nearly 40 years earlier.

Like many USFL players, resiliency is a big reason why Hills has kept his career going to this point. While he was a highly productive college player, injuries put a limit on that success. Another injury, suffered at the 2019 Senior Bowl, limited his effectiveness after he signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted rookie.

“I wasn’t 100% going into Arizona,” Hills said, “but every opportunity I get, I try to make the most of it.”

Hills made the most of his next opportunity with the Detroit Lions. He made his NFL regular-season debut with Detroit in December 2019, scoring two touchdowns in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But that experience was followed by nearly two inactive years with the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Three days after his contract with Hamilton expired, Hills signed with the Breakers. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

“All the ups and downs, it’s great to see that I’m able to show the world and prove it myself that I can play,” Hills said. “I’ve got a little game. It’s a good feeling. It’s a really good feeling.”

While he would welcome another chance to play in the NFL, Hills is beyond thrilled with his current situation. He said that his ultimate goal right now is to win a championship for a team he loves and a league that he deeply appreciates.

“One thing I learned about professional sports is there’s a lot of politics and other things that go into it, so it takes the fun out of it,” he said. “The one thing I love about this league is you’ll get your opportunity. The politics are out of it and you just love the game of football again.

“It’s a great league with great competition ran by some amazing people. Just to be able to play for a league like this and to be able showcase my ability, I’m incredibly grateful to the USFL.”

  1. Birmingham Stallions (3-1)
    The defending champions avenged their Week 3 loss to New Orleans by defeating a gritty Pittsburgh squad this past weekend. Birmingham has received solid play from quarterback Alex McGough, who replaced injured starter J’Mar Smith back in Week 1. McGough has benefitted by the emergence of wideout Davion Davis, who leads the team in receptions and yards and is tied with tight end Jace Sternberger for the team lead with three touchdown catches.

Birmingham’s last win was a team effort, with Deion Cain’s 91-yard kickoff return for a score being the difference in the Stallions’ 24-20 win over Pittsburgh.

  1. New Jersey Generals (2-2)
    The Generals aren’t the team without KaVontae Turpin, last year’s league MVP who went on to enjoy an All-Pro season for the Cowboys this past fall. While that is true, the Generals are still the class of the North Division. They also still have some of the league’s best players that include running back Darius Victor. The league’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year, Victor is the engine behind the league’s top-ranked rushing attack.
  2. Houston Gamblers (2-2)
    Sure, the Gamblers fell to also 2-2 Michigan back in Week 1. But Houston is 2-1 since that game while the Panthers are coming off consecutive losses (more on that in a second). The Gamblers have scored at least 30 points in each of their last three games. Houston’s offense has been led by Justin Hall, whose leads the USFL with four touchdown catches, and running back Mark Thompson, who ran for 134 yards and three touchdowns during Houston’s Week 4 win over Philadelphia.

The Gamblers’ stout defense has been led so far by Reggie Walker (three sacks) and Khalan Tolson (31 tackles).

  1. Michigan Panthers (2-2)
    After a 2-0 start, Michigan has dropped its last two games by a combined score of 57-23. Injuries (especially on the offensive line) has plagued the Panthers, who were a combined 1 of 4 in the red zone each of the past two games. Four turnovers also loomed large in Michigan’s most recent loss to the Memphis Showboats.

Despite their recent slide, the Panthers continue to get solid play from running backs Stevie Scott III and Reggie Corbin. The duo combined to run for 119 yards on 26 carries against Memphis.

  1. Pittsburgh Maulers (1-3)
    Roy Horton’s squad has played better than their record would indicate. They lost a close game against New Orleans before recording their first win of the season against Philadelphia in Week 3. Led by quarterback Troy Williams, Pittsburgh nearly upset the Stallions this past weekend in Canton, Ohio. The Maulers will look to get better in the red zone after going 0 of 3 in that department against Birmingham.

Defensively, Pittsburgh has been led by Olive Sagapolu, who leads the USFL with four sacks.

  1. Memphis Showboats (1-3)
    Todd Haley’s team is coming off of its first win of the year, a 19-point win over Michigan. Memphis played well in three of its first four games, with Kerrith Whyte being an integral role in the team’s win over the Panthers. A former Chicago Bears draft pick who briefly played for the Steelers in 2019, Whyte tallied 188 total yards against Michigan that included his 57-yard return of the opening kickoff that set up the first of Alex Kessman’s three field goals.
  2. Philadelphia Stars (1-3)
    This isn’t where anyone expected the Stars to be after last year’s USFL Championship Game appearance. Philadelphia has lost three straight, with the last defeat being a 41-16 beatdown at the hands of the Gamblers. While the defense hasn’t helped, the Stars’ offense has largely been the culprit for Philadelphia’s issues. The unit has scored over 20 points in a game just once despite having one of the league’s better quarterbacks in Case Cookus.

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