As we get closer to the kickoff of the Alliance of American Football's inaugural season on Feb. 9, we’re learning more the league’s goals and ambitions. One thing that’s already crystal clear is that the AAF is all about opportunity. The league also is about second chances, and helping elevate the careers of players who have flown under the radar more often than not. This especially holds true for the quarterback position.
As the AAF prepares for its maiden voyage, it has made a heavy investment in the quarterback position. The league has brought in a variety of signal-callers who have varying degrees of both college and professional experience. The AAF also is home to some head coaches with notable offensive reputations, such as Steve Spurrier, Mike Martz, and Rick Neuheisel, who will be tasked with getting the most out of some of these quarterbacks. Here are the names you will find under center for the AAF's eight teams.
Trevor Knight, QB, Arizona Hotshots
After throwing for 5,856 yards and 44 touchdowns for both Oklahoma and Texas A&M from 2013-16, Trevor Knight found himself on the practice squads for both the Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons in '17. But after failing to crack the main roster and get playing time, the Hotshots drafted Knight sixth overall in the league's unique quarterback draft that was held over Thanksgiving weekend. Now Knight gets his chance to showcase his rocket arm in a meaningful game, and he’ll do so under the watchful eye of head coach Rick Neuheisel. Neuheisel has built his career on mentoring quarterbacks so don’t be surprised if Knight becomes one of the top passers in the AAF short order. Neuheisel also has former Wake Forest star John Wolford to call on, as he did in the Hotshots' 38-22 Week 1 win over the Salt Lake Stallions.
Matt Simms, QB, Atlanta Legends
Kevin Coyle had a tough decision to make but ultimately chose Matt Simms over Aaron Murray. The former Tennessee Volunteer (Simms) and former Georgia Bulldog (Murray) both had solid showings during training camp. Simms, of the famous Simms quarterback family, went undrafted in 2012 but was signed by the New York Jets and played in four games for them from 2013-14. After the Jets, Simms competed for the backup spot in Buffalo in 2015 but was released the day after the final preseason game. He was then signed to Atlanta's practice squad where he spent the next two-plus seasons before leaving the team prior to the start of the 2017 season after coming to agreement on an injury settlement.
Murray threw for 13,166 yards, 44 touchdowns with a 62 percent completion rate at Georgia from 2010-13. Taken in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by Kansas City, Murray spent four seasons in the league but was primarily a practice squad member and never got into a regular-season game.
Luis Perez, QB, Birmingham Iron
The relatively unknown Luis Perez won the starting job for Iron, who are led by rookie head coach Tim Lewis. The 24-year-old had quite the difficult path to get to this point. Perez didn’t play varsity football in high school, but he walked onto a junior college team which eventually led him to Division II Texas A&M Commerce. In two seasons, he threw for 8,327 yards and 78 touchdowns while completing 67 percent of his passes. He also helped the Lions win the 2017 Division II National Championship.
After the season, Perez entered the 2018 NFL Draft and although he wasn't selected he ended up signing with the Los Angeles Rams in mid-May. Perez saw action in the preseason but did not make the final roster and spent just a few weeks on the Rams' practice squad before he was released. Birmingham took Perez with the fifth pick of the AAF's quarterback draft and he then proceeded to beat out Blake Sims (won two national titles when he was at Alabama) for the starting job in training camp.
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Christian Hackenberg, QB, Memphis Express
Like Atlanta, Express head coach Mike Singletary had a quarterback battle on his hands. Former NFL draft picks Christian Hackenberg and Zach Mettenberger went head-to-head in training camp with Hackenberg ultimately winning the job. Both men got their opportunities in the NFL because of their big arms, something each is no doubt ready to showcase in the AAF.
Hackenberg got the attention of many NFL scouts after throwing for 8,318 yards for Penn State from 2013-15. Taken in the second round (51st overall) by the Jets, Hackenberg soon found himself immersed in the team's seemingly never-ending quarterback carousel and never rose higher than third on the depth chart for any extended period. Last May, the Jets traded Hackenberg to the Raiders for a conditional seventh-round draft pick but he was waived by Oakland a month later, nullifying the deal. Hackenberg signed with the Eagles and played in the third preseason game but did not make the final cut. He then joined Cincinnati's practice squad but was released in early November.
After originally starting his college career at Georgia, Mettenberger ran into some off-field issues and played one season in junior college before landing at LSU. In two seasons as the Tigers' starter, Mettenberger threw 34 touchdown passes and was a two-time team captain. He tore is ACL in his final regular-season game but was able to recover in time to participate in the draft process and was taken in the sixth round by the Tennessee Titans. Mettenberger would make 10 starts from 2014-15, but he went 0-10 in those games and was released the following offseason.
It should be pointed out that Hackenberg was Memphis' second-round pick in the AAF quarterback draft while Mettenberger was taken in the fourth round. The Express' first pick (third overall) was Tennessee-Martin's Troy Cook but he did not make the 53-man roster. Former Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers is the third quarterback on the team.
Garrett Gilbert, QB, Orlando Apollos
Former Miami Hurricane Stephen Morris seemed like the favorite to win the starting job for head coach Steve Spurrier. But Morris was left off the final roster and now Spurrier will go with Garrett Gilbert, followed by Austin Appleby and Kevin Anderson to lead his team. Gilbert threw 49 total touchdown passes for Texas and SMU before giving the NFL a shot. From 2014 through this season, Gilbert bounced around spending time with five different teams, primarily as a practice squad member, but did see action in the regular-season finale for the Carolina Panthers in relief of spot-starter Kyle Allen.
Appleby started 11 games for Purdue from 2013-15 before transferring to Florida to finish his collegiate career. He was signed by Dallas an undrafted free agent in May 2017 but was released less than a month later. Anderson starred at Fordham (an FCS program) and finished his career as the Rams' all-time leader in touchdown passes (73).
Josh Woodrum, QB, Salt Lake Stallions
Dennis Erickson is going with a player who doesn’t have much game experience, but has participated in plenty of NFL practices and quarterback meeting rooms. Josh Woodrum was a four starter for then-FCS member Liberty before receiving an invitation to participate in the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. He went undrafted but over the next three years he spent time with the Giants, Colts, Bills, Browns and Ravens in some capacity, but mostly as a practice squad member. Now with the Stallions, it’s time for Woodrum to put all of that knowledge to use and show why NFL teams kept taking a chance on him.
Dustin Vaughan, QB, San Antonio Commanders
Mike Riley was expected to give the keys to Texas native Dustin Vaughan for the Commanders' season opener against San Diego, but instead went with Logan Woodside. This quarterback competition is far from over, however, as the former Toledo starter completed half of his passes (18 of 36) for 255 yards but was intercepted twice in the 15-6 win over the Fleet. As for Vaughan, he was a two-time Lone Star Conference Offensive Player of the Year (2012, '13) during his time at Division II West Texas A&M. He was signed by Dallas after going undrafted in 2014 and surprised many by making the team as the third-string quarterback. He was cut the following September and wound up spending time as a member of the practice squads for both the Bills and Ravens, as well as playing in the preseason for the Steelers, from 2015-17. Now the 28-year-old looks to change his football fortunes with the Commanders.
Mike Bercovici, QB, San Diego Fleet
Mike Martz loves to work with “gunslinger” style quarterbacks and he’ll get to do so again in the AAF as Mike Bercovici will be the Fleet's starter. The 25-year-old accounted for 5,478 total yards and 48 total touchdowns while operating the high-octane offense of former Arizona State head coach Todd Graham while playing for the Sun Devils from 2011-15. After failing to latch on with the Chargers and Cardinals, Bercovici will finally get the chance to prove himself as a pro.
San Diego took Josh Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick in the quarterback draft, but he signed with the Washington Redskins less than two weeks later following season-ending injuries to Alex Smith and Colt McCoy. Backing up Mark Sanchez, Johnson ended up playing in four games and made three starts after Sanchez was benched. Johnson will remain with the Redskins but he'll have the option to re-sign with the Fleet should Washington release him.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
Photos courtesy of AAF.