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Sports >  National sports

New Alliance of American Football gives former area players another chance at big time

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 13, 2019

Matt Linehan isn’t the highest-paid player on the Salt Lake Stallions’ 52-man roster.

He isn’t fighting for scraps on the startup organization’s payroll, either.

The former Idaho quarterback gets the same paycheck as everyone else on his Alliance of American Football roster, part of the new professional spring football league backed by some of the NFL’s most recognizable figures.

Linehan doesn’t get a dime more than Stallions punter Austin Rehkow, the former Central Valley and Idaho standout who’s back in pads after preseason stints with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants.

The eight-team league kicked off its inaugural season to a national audience Saturday – the opening game on CBS drew 2.9 million viewers, according to reports – and showed off a quality brand of football that aims to complement the NFL while having its own identity and sustainability.

Linehan likened the AAF to the NBA’s G-League, but without the money-driven politics.

“We’re not a direct affiliate (of an NFL team), but it’s for players that were the one man out on a roster cut, didn’t have a lot of hype in college,” said Linehan, who led the Sun Belt Conference in passing in 2016 with Idaho.

“And we’re getting paid the same, so there’s no, ‘Oh, hey, we drafted this guy high and are paying him a lot, so he needs to play’ sort of thing.”

Not that the league isn’t dotted with big names.

Quarterbacks Aaron Murray (Atlanta Legends) and Christian Hackenberg (Memphis Express) starred at Georgia and Penn State, respectively, in recent years but didn’t stick in the NFL after being drafted.

There are also reclamation projects like Birmingham Iron running back Trent Richardson, the former Alabama star and first-round draft pick in 2012, who fizzled out of the league after five seasons.

The AAF’s front office includes former NFL general manager Bill Polian, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and executive J.K. McKay. Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward and former New York Giants and Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck are advisers.

These names generated the most buzz: Steve Spurrier (Orlando Apollos head coach), Mike Martz (San Diego Fleet head coach), Rick Neuheisel (Arizona Hotshots head coach) and Mike Singletary (Memphis Express head coach)

Among the most decorated coaches in the league is Salt Lake Express head man and Coeur d’Alene resident Dennis Erickson, the former Washington State, Idaho and Seattle Seahawks head coach who won a pair of national titles at Miami.

Professional football leagues other than the NFL and Canadian Football League – the WFL, USFL, NFL Europe, the Arena League and XFL’s first run in 2000 – ultimately failed.

So what about this new venture made Erickson come out of his most recent retirement?

“There’s been a lot of leagues that have tried to do this,” said Erickson, who was an assistant at the University of Utah in his last coaching stint. “But the people who are running this league and the way it it’s organized – it’s going to be very, very special.

“There’s a lot of good players who aren’t in the NFL who were very close to making it, and we want to give them another chance, and that’s what it’s all about.”

AAF players have three-year, nonguaranteed contracts for $250,000 ($83,000 annually), according to a ESPN report.

“The Vandal connection is strong here”

Salt lake Stallions punter Austin Rehkow (5) in the second half during an AAF football game against the Arizona Hotshots, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / AP)
Salt lake Stallions punter Austin Rehkow (5) in the second half during an AAF football game against the Arizona Hotshots, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / AP)

After Rehkow was cut by his second NFL team last year, he figured his playing days were over and joined the workforce.

The 23-year-old helped out at a Spokane chiropractor’s office, offered analysis on SWX and worked in the Idaho Vandals’ ticket office.

Like Linehan, he wasn’t interested in playing north of the border in the CFL.

Working with some of football’s greatest football minds, they said, was a big sell in keeping their dream alive.

“It’s an opportunity to get some more game film out there,” Rehkow said. “I spent a lot of time in Buffalo, but I didn’t get a lot of time to play in a game and show what I can do. It was tough, and can be very political at times.”

Linehan, a three-starter at Idaho, went undrafted in 2018. He was invited to Cincinnati Bengals rookie camp but was cut.

The son of former Detroit Lions head coach and former Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Matt Linehan consulted with his father about his next move.

The AAF, which drafted Linehan with the 27th overall pick in November, was worth pursuing, he said.

“A lot of great coaches, some big names and the funding was there,” Linehad said. “They’re willing to develop young talent. There are cities in this league that have been hungry for a pro team, and it seems like they’re very excited.”

The eight teams are based in Salt Lake City; San Diego; Phoenix; Memphis, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; Orlando, Florida; Atlanta and San Antonio.

Salt Lake City, the most northern team in the league, will play its games at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium.

For the past four weeks weeks, the Stallions have practiced and lived in San Antonio, where the city’s AAF team, the San Antonio Commanders, plays in the Alamodome.

The Stallions lost their opener to the Arizona Hotshots 38-22 on Sunday at Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium. Linehan split time behind center, completing 7 of 13 passes for 56 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Rehkow had six punts, averaging 42.8 yards a boot.

No longer splitting kick and punting duties, Rehkow said he’s enjoying the AAF’s rules, which include no kickoffs; no PATs (only 2-point conversions); no TV timeouts; no onside kicks; and both teams get a chance to score in overtime.

“This is probably the most fun I’ve had playing since college. It’s a tight-knit group,” Rehkow said. “In the NFL, guys can be more worried about themselves.”

Much of the camaraderie Linehan and Rehkow feel has to do with being on a team with deep Idaho roots.

Erickson spent six years as a coach in three stints. His staff in Salt Lake City includes Idaho graduate Tim Lappano (offensive coordinator) and former longtime Idaho assistant Dan Cozzetto (offensive line coach).

Former Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints general manager Randy Mueller – a graduate of St. Maries High School – has the same role with the Stallions.

“(Mueller) who is from North Idaho, saw a lot of my games,” Linehan said. “Erickson did great things at Idaho, and Austin was my teammate. The Vandal connection is strong here.”

Adding to the Stallions’ local connections is Will Davis, a former Central Valley and Utah State defensive back drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 2013. He started at cornerback on Sunday.

Salt lake Stallions quarterback Matt Linehan (10) in the second half during an AAF football game against the Arizona Hotshots, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / AP)
Salt lake Stallions quarterback Matt Linehan (10) in the second half during an AAF football game against the Arizona Hotshots, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / AP)

Big move for Troxel

After former Lake City High star Matt Troxel concluded his playing career at Montana, he cut his teeth as a position coach at Idaho, Montana and Idaho State before being named Idaho State’s offensive coordinator in 2017.

Troxel, 32, was an offensive quality control assistant at Oregon State last season, where he was introduced to Mike Riley, the former Oregon State and Nebraska head coach fired by the Huskers after the 2017 season.

Riley, who started his coaching career as a Whitworth graduate assistant in in 1975, was as assistant at Oregon State last season before accepting the head coaching gig for the San Antonio Commanders.

One of his first hires was Troxel, the son of Van Troxel, among the best high school coaches in Idaho during his long tenure at Lake City before retiring in 2016.

“For me to run the offense with (Riley) was a very unique opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Troxel said. “And to just be back on the field calling plays is big.”

Troxel, who lives in Liberty Lake during the offseason, compares the AAF to Triple-A baseball. It’s a league he thinks can enjoy its own success while sending players to the NFL.

“Especially for quarterbacks,” Troxel said. “There’s only one QB on the field at a time, so this gives opportunities for game reps. If you’re on an NFL practice squad, you’re not getting those reps.”

Troxel was known as a bright young offensive mind in the Northwest, where he penned the 140-page paperback book “Coaching Wide Receiver Play” during his first stint at Idaho State.

Now he’s adjusting to his first professional gig.

San Antonio beat San Diego 15-6 in its opener Sunday in front of 27,000 fans at the Alamodome, a game in which Troxel’s quarterback, former Toledo star Logan Woodside, passed for 255 yards with two interceptions.

“There’s a lot of support for the team here,” Troxel said.

Former Gonzaga Prep and Washington running back Bishop Sankey – the first running back taken in the 2014 NFL draft before a series of knee injuries in Minnesota – was on San Diego’s roster but did not play Saturday.

Former Washington quarterback Keith Price is a backup for Birmingham.

Keeping the dream alive

Eastern Washington wide receiver Nsimba Webster wrapped his college career last month, concluding an impressive senior season in which he hauled in 84 passes for 1,379 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The All-Big Sky Conference talent didn’t receive an NFL combine invitation and is training in Denver for pro day, hoping an NFL team at least signs him as a rookie free agent in April.

He watched his former college teammates – Rams receiver Cooper Kupp and 49ers receiver Kendrick Bourne – go through the process in 2017, Kupp drafted in the third round and Bourne an undrafted free agent.

Webster believes he has the ability to shine in the right pro system, but if he doesn’t survive final NFL cuts later this summer, he’s happy to know there’s another league that can help him develop.

“I think it’s great,” Webster said. “It gives guys chances to develop their game, but also gives athletes the opportunity to play the game of football if they didn’t get a chance in the NFL.”

If Webster and other talented small-school products don’t initially make the NFL grade, they, like Linehan, can potentially get drafted by an AAF team later in the year.

“Those hopes of making it don’t fade away, because you can picked up anytime, which is pretty cool,” Webster said. “I think (the AAF) will be a huge in the future.”

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