After going undrafted out of Temple in 2017, Phillip “P.J.” Walker spent time on and off the Indianapolis Colts‘ practice squad and signed two reserve/future contracts before ultimately being waived by the team for the third and final time in August 2019.
Walker’s impressive XFL debut on Saturday night made that decision look like it may have been of the “hasty” variety.
The Houston Roughnecks’ 24-year-old signal-caller put on an absolute show in front of the home crowd at TDECU Stadium, accumulating 272 passing yards (23/39) and four touchdowns in the team’s 37-17 win over the L.A. Wildcats.
Walker dodged, ducked and dipped his way to a number of impressive plays that have already established him as a talent to watch in the burgeoning league. The only real blemishes on his otherwise superb evening was a sack for a loss of seven and a pick in the closing minutes when Houston was up by what ended up being a game-deciding 20-point margin.
On just his second pass attempt of the night, he completed a 50-yard bomb to receiver Cam Phillips (4/67/1). His. Second. Attempt. Of the night. That’s just ridiculous, ladies and gentlemen.
With 1:10 to go in the first half, Walker took the snap, looked downfield, sensed the pressure coming, evaded two defenders, rolled to his left and slung a 39-yard pass across his body into the waiting arms of wideout Sam Mobley in the left corner of the endzone. it was Mobley’s only catch of the night. Wow.
Another highlight came early in the third. Walker stood in the pocket and fired a 29-yard bullet down the middle of the field to receiver Nick Holley (4/50) that went just over the middle linebacker and right in between the safeties. A great throw by his QB but an even more impressive feat by Holley, whose journey to the XFL featured three torn ACLs and a broken back over the course of his life in the sport.
Performing how Walker did and being in the same city as Texans star Deshaun Watson will certainly evoke somewhat understandable albeit premature comparisons but he still has a long way to go before entering that type of discussion. Walker was certainly in a league of his own on Saturday, though.
In fact, most of this contest was a one-sided affair. The Roughnecks’ D-line definitely earned the “rough” part of their moniker with their effort, manhandling the Wildcats’ O-line from start to finish.
Linebacker LeTroy Lewis and 2014 second-round draft pick defensive end Kony Ealy feasted against L.A.’s O-line. Lewis nabbed two tackles, two sacks, three QB hits, a pass defensed and one forced fumble; Ealy earned three tackles, five QB hits and 0.5 sacks.
Safety Deatrick Nichols led the way for the secondary with five tackles, a sack, an INT and two passes defensed. Houston totaled 11 PDs, two INTs, 16 QB hits and five sacks.
It wasn’t all bad for the Wildcats, though, as WR Nelson Spruce became the XFL’s first 100-yard receiver with 11 receptions for 103 yards. Spruce managed to establish himself as a go-to target despite QB Charles Kanoff (21/40, 214 yards, TD, INT) having a poor night. Kanoff, who got the start with NFL journeyman Josh Johnson out with a thigh injury, was also sacked three times.
After playing in the preseason for the Jaguars in 2019, running back Elijah Hood took the field for the first time since last August, and contributed 12 carries, 43 yards and one insane hurdle on a short run in the second quarter. Hood played four preseason games for the Panthers in 2018 and spent time with the Raiders the year prior; he’s been hampered by injuries for most of his pro career.
D.C. Defenders 31, Seattle Dragons 19
Well, that was different.
The inaugural game of the XFL kicked off Saturday in front of 17,000-plus fans inside of Audi Stadium, and saw the D.C. Defenders (1-0) pull out a solid 31-19 victory against the Seattle Dragons (0-1).
Led by former Ohio State star quarterback Cardale Jones, the Defenders came back from a 13-12 halftime deficit to outscore the Dragons 19-6. Jones, a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, finished the day 16-of-26 for 291 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the third quarter.
Standout receiver Eli Rogers, whose three years with the Steelers was marred by injuries, caught all six of his targets for a team-high 73 yards, demonstrating just how dangerous he can be when healthy. Khari Lee, a former tight end of the Bears, Lions and Bills, secured a 39-yard pass for D.C.’s first TD.
The Defenders’ defense also came to play, snagging two interceptions — one a 69-yard trip to the house from cornerback Bradley Sylve in the fourth — as well as four tackles for a loss and nine passes defensed. The defensive line provided a ton of pressure all afternoon, most noticeably linebacker Jonathan Massaquoi, who had three tackles and recorded the team’s lone sack.
Defenders nose tackle Elijah Qualls came away with a fumble recovery on a botched handoff by Dragons QB Brandon Silvers with five and some change to go that zapped the little momentum Seattle, down by 14, had been trying to build towards a comeback of their own.
Silvers completed 21 of his 40 pass attempts for 217 yards, three TDs and two INTs. Silvers’ first TD toss — a pin-point 14-yarder up the middle to tight end Austin Proehl — will go down as the first TD in the new league’s history. As the pocket collapsed around him on his third TD, Silvers displayed good awareness by scrambling up the field and finding Proehl (5/88/2) for a 57-yard catch-and-run score. Both “Play of the Day material” but for totally different reasons.
Defenders kicker Tyler Rausa contributed the first points (note the distinction) of kickoff day on a 34-yarder. The former Boise State special teamer finished 2-of-3 on the day, including a career-best 54-yard FG to end the first half.
Aside from the notable rule differences, which you can familiarize yourself with here, another exciting aspect of the game was the live mic used by both teams for the duration.
Defenders coach Pep Hamilton, whose previous experience includes stops with the Jets, 49ers, Bears, Colts and Browns, as well as at the collegiate level with Stanford, Michigan and Howard, could be heard delivering plays to his starting QB. Jones, in turn, could also be heard going through his cadence prior to the snap.
Dragons coach Jim Zorn, who is very familiar with the DC area as the Redskins‘ head coach from 2008-09, could be heard doing the same. He likely wishes his “revenge game” would’ve ended a little differently. Zorn’s other stops include stints with the Seahawks, Lions, Ravens, and Chiefs, as well as in the NCAA with Boise State, Utah State and Minnesota.
The hot mic was also featured rather interestingly in sideline interviews with players as they came off the field; topics ranged from celebratory chatter about the play they were previously involved in to frustrated breakdowns of what went wrong and so on and so forth.
All in all, it was an intriguing beginning to what should be an intriguing new era for the XFL.