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Column: L.A. Wildcats look to use the XFL as a springboard to the NFL

L.A. Wildcats defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson, left, and general manager Winston Moss.
L.A. Wildcats defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson, left, and general manager Winston Moss, both hope their players make it to the NFL.
(Haley Graves / LA Wildcats)

Pepper Johnson is still getting to know his players but he recently told them he hopes many of them are gone next year.

Johnson won two Super Bowls as a player with the New York Giants and three more as an assistant coach with the New England Patriots. He played for Bill Parcells and coached under Bill Belichick.

As the defensive coordinator of the XFL’s Los Angeles Wildcats, who begin play in February, Johnson’s dream is for his players to be in the NFL one day.

“Hopefully at the end of the season we’re standing on the field with confetti but it’s going to make me feel even better if half my room isn’t here next year,” Johnson said. “If I can get half my room out of here and in the NFL, that would be amazing. I’m not talking two or three guys, I want to get half my guys out of here and in the NFL. That means we’ve had a successful season as coaches.

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“These guys want the opportunity to play in the NFL. I know they don’t want us talking about that but those are their dreams and goals and rightfully so. It’s my job to help them achieve those dreams and goals.”

Following the team’s first minicamp practice, which is taking place in Las Vegas, Johnson thinks that dream will likely become a reality when NFL scouts watch the Wildcats play at Dignity Health Sports Park, which is the home of the Galaxy and Chargers.

“We have about 18-20 guys who I could see playing in the NFL next season,” Johnson said. “We need a few more but it wouldn’t shock me if 20 or so guys on our team are in the NFL next year.”

The XFL revealed the uniforms for its eight teams. Which players are going to look the sharpest? (Hint: the ones with the dragons on their helmets.)

XFL executives push back against the notion that Vince McMahon’s rebooted eight-team professional football league is a developmental league for the NFL, but that’s the goal of many of the Wildcat players going through practice at Nevada Las Vegas this week. The first game is Feb. 8.

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That’s one of the reasons Los Angeles is viewed as one of the premier destinations in the league for players and their agents. Wildcats coach and general manager Winston Moss was the assistant head coach of the Green Bay Packers from 2007-2018 and put together a coaching staff that could rival many in the NFL in terms of experience.

In addition to Johnson on defense, Moss hired Norm Chow as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Chow was the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans from 2005-2007, but is better known as one of the most accomplished offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches in college football history. He mentored Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC, Ty Detmer, Steve Young and Jim McMahon at Brigham Young and Philip Rivers at North Carolina State.

“These guys want to get to the next level and I want to help them get to that next level,” Chow said. “We all understand the situation. It’s our job to help these guys get better. I told them I want them to be one and done like Kentucky. That’s the goal.”

The Wildcats’ coaching staff has combined for more than 100 years of NFL coaching experience. Martin Bayless, who played in the NFL from 1984-1996 and has coached in the league since 2000, is the team’s special teams coordinator.

Mike Wilson, who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, is the wide receivers coach. Jerry Fontenot, who won a Super Bowl with Moss with the Packers in 2011, is the offensive line coach.

Dave Atkins, who has coached in the NFL for more than 20 years, is the running backs coach, and Otis Smith, who won a Super Bowl with the Patriots, is reunited with Johnson as the defensive backs coach.

“I had never coached with Norm and Pep but I wanted both of them on my staff,” Moss said. “I had to get Norm to come out of retirement and Pep almost took a job with Seattle. Those guys are two of the best to ever coach offense and defense and Martin Bayless is one of the best special teams coaches. It’s an amazing staff.”

Even the team’s equipment manager has decades of NFL experience. Bob Wick, who was with the Chargers since 1979 and helped the team relocate to Los Angeles, was running around the field and making sure everything was in order before the Wildcats’ first practice in helmets and pads.

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As much as the coaching staff wants to see many of their players in the NFL next season, the XFL has been clear that once a player signs a contract, he cannot leave to play in the NFL without first honoring his commitment to play in the upcoming season.

The Detroit Lions reportedly tried to sign Wildcats quarterback Josh Johnson last month after Matthew Stafford got injured but the XFL blocked the move.

That doesn’t mean Johnson or any other player can’t sign with an NFL team after the XFL season is over but the league doesn’t want players signing XFL contracts and leaving their teams because an NFL team needs a quarterback for the last few weeks of the season.

The league would rather they showcase their abilities during the course of the 10-week XFL season and be in position to sign with an NFL team after the NFL draft. The XFL championship game takes places one day after the conclusion of the draft in April.

“I’m pushing for all my guys to have a big season and get an opportunity to play in the NFL,” Moss said. “If guys get that chance, I’ll pat them on the back, wish them luck, let them go and we’ll reload.

“I hope all of our players get picked up by the NFL. That’s our goal for them. We’re going to coach them hard and give them the best opportunity to succeed in the XFL and get to the NFL.”


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