The Spring League (TSL) wraps up its third football season Saturday with its second championship game, tabbed the Mega Bowl. The Linemen (4-1), champions of the North, face the Jousters (3-2), South Division champs, at 3 p.m. (ET) at Houston’s Rice Stadium. Fox is handling the live telecast.
HBCU flavor in Mega Bowl and The Spring League
Both teams in the Mega Bowl have a little HBCU flavor as does the TSL, which bills itself as “an elite professional football development league.” Twenty-one (21) players from the black college ranks suited up this year in the league.
The Linemen will feature two former all-Mid Eastern Athletic Conference performers from Savannah State – defensive end Stefan Banks and linebacker Marquis Smith. Banks, who finished his SSU career in 2018, was a devastating run-stopper for the Tigers. Smith, a premier edge rusher, put up 79 tackles and 9.5 sacks in his final campaign (2016).
Banks, Smith and the Linemen finished 4-1 under head coach Hal Mumme, one of the founders of the ‘Air Raid’ spread offense. Mumme had stints as a head coach at the University of Kentucky and at six other colleges. He spent part of one season (2018) as an offensive coordinator at Jackson State under former head coach Tony Hughes.
More of the same
The well-travelled Kevin Gilbride coaches the Jousters. The former head coach of the San Diego Chargers won two Super Bowl rings in seven seasons as an offensive assistant with the New York Giants. Gilbride also coached on the offensive side for six other NFL teams.
His team includes former Prairie View A&M wide receiver/kick returner Joshua Simmons who finished his career for the Panthers in 2017. Simmons had a 58-yard touchdown reception in the Jousters’ final regular season game, a 27-10 win over the Sea Lions last week. He had four receptions for 61 yards and a TD reception in a 12-10 loss a week earlier to the Blues.
At 5-9, 175, Simmons was among the SWAC leaders with 32 receptions for nearly 500 yards in his final year at Prairie View. He played one year in Europe and had a shot playing in Canada before COVID-19 hit. He then returned to the States. Playing in the TSL this season was an eye-opener.
A learning experience
“It was great,” said Simmons, a Houston native. “I got to learn a lot, learn how NFL systems run, learn from the coaches and meet a lot of players that already played in the league.
“Starting off, I had to kinda feel my way around, learn the system, because there were a lot of terms I had never heard before. But the quarterbacks and Coach Gilbride did a good job of helping me figure it out. They didn’t just leave you out to dry. As the week’s went along, I got better.
“It was a great experience to be around other professional coaches, get the experience of pro football and get to play around great talent. It was a great environment to be around.”
Familiar HBCU players in The Spring League
Other well-known HBCU players on TSL rosters included former Prairie View A&M running back Dawonya Tucker with the Sea Lions and former Hampton quarterback Deondre Francois with the Generals. Bethune-Cookman wide receiver Frank Brown (Alphas), offensive lineman Donald Boone (Conquerors) out of Chowan in the CIAA and former Alcorn State running back Deshawn Waller (Blues) are among others that played this season.
Tucker is a 5-6, 175-pound standout running back that played three years at Prairie View, two with Simmons. He put up monster numbers there, running for over 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons (2018 and 2019), and putting up 15 rushing TDs as a senior in 2019.
Opportunity knocks just in time
The COVID-19 pandemic cut off opportunities for him to workout at a Pro Day or Combine in 2019, just as it did for a host of others. After not being selected in the 2020 NFL draft, Tucker returned to his hometown of Terrell, Texas to coach high school football. Though he worked out from time to time, he didn’t really train hard as he focused on his coaching career. When he got the call to go play for the Sea Lions, he was at practice. He joined the Sea Lions, who finished 1-4, after two games and played in the final three.
“Going out there and getting experience, playing against guys who had been vets in the league and had camp invites, showed me that I can really play at the next level,” said Tucker. “I held my ground and held my own and I did it without strict training. I feel it did increase my chances to play at the next level and increase my confidence as well.”
Tucker played under Sea Lions head coach Larry Kirksey, a longtime vet who spent 17 years as a coach in the NFL and 22 years coaching at the collegiate level. Kirksey also spent one year (1983) as the head coach at Kentucky State. Among the pros he’s tutored are Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.
“I just fed a lot off of him,” Tucker said of Kirksey. “That was my first time being around a pro-style offense and pro-style play calling. He just laid it out for us and gave us a blueprint of how it was going to be.
“I think I did pretty well, especially not playing since 2019. It let me know that I can hang in there. if I had not jumped into my coaching career and had given it my all, I probably would have killed it when I got out there.”
Spartan accommodations, potentially great exposure
Figuring out how well any of the players fared is difficult as the TSL doesn’t post, or apparently keep, stats. Still, the TSL’s website (thespringleague.com) says 104 players have been signed to the NFL out of The Spring League since 2017, the year the TSL got started.
The TSL had eight teams this year, four in the North Division and four in the South Division. The four North Division teams played all its games at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis while the South Division played at Rice Stadium. Prior to the Mega Bowl, teams only played opponents in their same division cutting down on travel and expenses. FOX, FS1 and FS2 carried the games live.
Though the players are not paid, they were furnished room and board either in the Houston or Indianapolis area during the season’s five- or six-game schedule. Their primary hope is to put enough good play on tape to showcase their talents and impress professional scouts. Twenty-two (22) of the 32 NFL teams have reportedly attended Spring League games.
Spring League Showcases in the summer and fall provide additional opportunities for players be evaluated
Future looks bright, more opportunities to catch on
Just this month, The Spring League founder Brian Woods – who also started the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) from 2014 to 2015 – announced that he had acquired the remaining trademarks of the United States Football League. He intends with the intent of launching a USFL-branded league in 2022 with Fox Sports remaining as a partner.
That word about the possibility of the USFL opening back up has trickled down to Simmons, Tucker and the other HBCU vets and TSL players. They are hoping to get opportunities to continue their careers. With the Canadian Football League (CFL) and NFL contemplating full and regular seasons in the fall, and perhaps opportunities with the FXFL, the prospects are looking up.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for cats that didn’t get a chance to get some film out there last year, like me,” Tucker said. “That’s why I was so grateful for The Spring League. It was a chance for me to get back out there and play again. I feel it was all snatched away from me with the COVID situation happened.”
FORMER HBCU PLAYERS IN THE SPRING LEAGUE IN 2021
11 BROWN, Frank WR 26 Bethune Cookman
57 MCGEE, Shaun LB 26 Georgia/Tuskegee
3 DAVIS, Devante WR 25 Grambling State
43 CALLOWAY, Tere DB 25 Alabama A&M/Nevada
85 DAVID, DuShon WR 24 Bowie State
64 FIELDS, Joshua OG 24 Elizabeth City State
72 MEYERS, Robert OT 28 Tennessee State
99 BANKS, Stefen DE 25 Savannah State
49 SMITH, Marquis LB 27 Savannah State
31 WALLER, Deshawn RB 25 Alcorn State
74 BOONE, Donald OL 23 Chowan
77 WHEATLEY, Tyrone (TJ) OL 24 Michigan/Morgan State
37 SIMMONS, Joshua WR 25 Prairie View A&M
61 HICKS, Darrius OG 23 Fort Valley State
92 ROYSTER, Darius DE 25 North Carolina Central
5 FRANCOIS, Deandre QB 24 Florida State/Hampton
60 BROWN, Sean OL 28 Mississippi Valley State
30 HARRIS, Jaylen DB 27 Prairie View A&M
20 TUCKER, Dawonya RB 23 Prairie View A&M
19 WALlACE, Tristan WR 22 Prairie View A&M
33 WILKERSON, Matthew TE 23 Edward Waters