USFL 2023 season preview: Under Mike Nolan, Michigan Panthers could get defensive

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The Michigan Panthers finished third in the North last season, a campaign seen as more of a disappointment than anything else.

The New Jersey Generals won the division at 9-1, the Philadelphia Stars were second at 6-4 and the Panthers finished with a 2-8 record, four games back of Philly. Both of the Panthers’ wins came against division rivals.

The good news for the Panthers is that they won the last game of the season against the Pittsburgh Maulers, so (exclusively for the USFL) they won not only the game, but the right to the first overall pick in the inaugural USFL college draft. The Panthers drafted offensive tackle Jarrett Horst out of Michigan State, another thing unique to the USFL: They value offensive linemen. In fact, Michigan’s first draft class included four offensive linemen out of its 10 total picks.

Perhaps the biggest change facing the Panthers as they try to bounce back from a sub-par 2022 season will be the man tasked with fixing things, new head coach Mike Nolan. Jeff Fisher stepped down as head coach in early February, citing personal reasons, and handed the reins to Nolan, a veteran NFL coach and defensive guru.

With previous stops in San Francisco as head coach and most recently the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator in 2020, Nolan will return to the helm in his new home of Detroit.

Nolan will have the advantage of welcoming back star linebacker Frank Ginda, who finished with the second-most tackles in the league last season with 90.

The Panthers also took advantage of the opportunity by adding former NFL defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche to the roster after he spent the 2022 NFL season on the 49ers’ training camp roster. But the six-year NFL veteran, a first-round pick of the Cardinals in 2016, was released over the weekend.

With or without Nkemdiche, the Panthers defense will hope to limit opponents more effectively in 2023 under Nolan’s tutelage. That, along with a balanced offense, the Panthers led the league in passing last season, should translate to a better record for the Detroit Panthers.

That offense will welcome back running back Reggie Corbin, who re-signed this offseason after leading the team in rushing yards in 2022, along with fellow running back Stevie Scott III.

They will likely take the ball from quarterback Josh Love, who is back healthy and ready for his second year with the Panthers. Love threw for just 791 yards last season and Carson Strong, who signed with the Panthers last month, will challenge for the starting spot.

Strong was a record-breaking signal caller at the University of Nevada and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles last April. He was released at the end of training camp and briefly signed with the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad in December. He and Love have been battling in training camp for the right to start under center for the Panthers.

Joe Walker and Ishmael Hyman, both multi-touchdown players last season for Michigan, will be the receivers under center for the Panthers in 2023. Hyman was recently on the Green Bay Packers’ training camp roster after of his first season in the USFL in 2022. Hyman has spent time with three other NFL clubs before his first stint with Michigan.

The Panthers will play four straight in Detroit after two road games to start the season. The Panthers open 2023 on Sunday on the road in Memphis against the Houston Gamblers.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, adding the title of Super Bowl champion (and boat parade participant) to her resume. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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