UFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates: Reuben Foster leads deep field

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by Eric Williams | FOXSports.com

In his first season back on the field as a pro in over four years, linebacker Reuben Foster did not disappoint.

Foster finished with 53 combined tackles, an interception and three tackles for loss in eight games for the Pittsburgh Maulers, helping that defensive-led team reach the USFL championship before losing to the eventual champs, the Birmingham Stallions.

Now, with the USFL merging with the XFL, the former first round selection of the San Francisco 49ers in the 2017 draft moves to a new team this season in the newly formed United Football League, joining the Houston Roughnecks.

However, Houston head coach Curtis Johnson says to expect the same energy and enthusiasm from the 29-year-old Alabama product. 

"Ruben is still very, very active," Johnson told FOX Sports. "He can go sideline to sideline. Not only is he fast, but he’s physical also. 

"He’s still got a lot of juice left in the tank. He’s built like a Greek God. So, he’s our inspirational leader. He knows the game. He knows what he’s doing. He’s one of the guys defensively we’ve got to lean on." 

Foster will have plenty of competition for the first Defensive Player of the Year award in the inaugural UFL season. Last year’s USFL Defensive Player of Year Frak Ginda returns for the Michigan Panthers, along with XFL Defensive Player of the Year Pita Taumoepenu, with the twitchy edge rusher moving to the St. Louis Battlehawks.

Along with those three, expect players like linebackers Kyahva Tezino and Jordan Williams to also make a splash. 

Here’s a closer look at some of the top defensive players to watch in the upcoming season.

The UFL season opener starts on Saturday on FOX, with last year’s USFL champs the Birmingham Stallions visiting the 2023 XFL champions, the Arlington Renegades. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. ET.

DE Davin Bellamy, D.C. Defenders

The Georgia product totaled 5.5 sacks and 18 combined tackles for the Defenders, who reached the XFL championship, finishing 9-1 during the regular season. Bellamy earned all-XFL honors for his effort in 2023 and combined with fellow edge rusher Trent Harris (XFL leader with 9.5 sacks in 2023) to give the Defenders two dangerous rushers coming off the edge.

LB Vontae Diggs, Memphis Showboats

The charismatic defender moves with former New Orleans Breakers head coach John DeFilippo to the Showboats as one of the new team leaders in Memphis. Diggs finished with 69 combined tackles, three interceptions and 2.5 sacks in 2023. 

LB Reuben Foster, Houston Roughnecks 

Joining Foster on Houston’s defense is another All-USFL defender in edge rusher Adam Rodriguez, who finished with 31 combined tackles and six sacks last season for the Philadelphia Stars. Former USFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, defensive end Chris Odom returns to the spring league after a season with the Cleveland Browns. However, Odom is still recovering from a leg injury. 

CB Mark Gilbert, Birmingham Stallions

The talented cover corner led the USFL in interceptions last season with four during the regular season. Gilbert also finished with 32 combined tackles and 15 pass breakups, helping Pittsburgh hold teams to a league-low 17.8 points per game last season. Gilbert spent time with the Miami Dolphins last year, and now joins Birmingham’s talented secondary that includes safety JoJo Tillery and cornerback Ike Brown.

LB Frank Ginda, Michigan Panthers

Last year’s USFL Defensive Player of the year, Ginda led the league with 104 combined tackles. He also finished with three interceptions and a sack. An All-USFL performer last season, the San Jose State product spent time with the Atlanta Falcons in 2023. 

CB Ajene Harris, Arlington Renegades 

The USC Product led the XFL in interceptions with six last year while playing for the Roughnecks. Harris now moves to the Renegades, where he will play for defensive coordinator Jay Hayes. Harris also finished with 31 combined tackles and seven pass breakups in 2023. 

OLB Delontae Scott, San Antonio Brahmas

Scott led the Brahmas with 7.5 sacks last season, second in the XFL. He earned All-XFL honors as a defensive lineman in 2023. Brahmas head coach Wade Phillips expects Scott to pair with fellow edge rusher Wyatt Ray to form a dangerous pass rushing tandem in San Antonio.

DE Breeland Speaks, Michigan Panthers

The USFL sacks leader with nine last year, Speaks returns to the Panthers. A former second-round selection by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018, Speaks spent time with the San Francisco 49ers last season. He finished with 53 combined tackles, including six tackles for loss, earning All-USFL honors last season. 

DE Pita Taumoepenu, St. Louis Battlehawks

The reigning XFL Defensive Player of the Year, Taumoepenu finished with 7.5 sacks, 23.5 combined tackles and four forced fumbles for the Las Vegas Vipers in 2023. Now playing for St. Louis, the Utah product joins a defense that includes linebacker Travis Feeney and former Philadelphia Stars cornerback Channing Stribling, led by defensive coordinator Donnie Abraham.

LB Kyahva Tezino, Birmingham Stallions

The San Diego State product finished second in the USFL in combined tackles with 94 on the season. Tezino also finished with two interceptions and nine tackles for loss, earning All-USFL honors. He spent time with the San Francisco 49ers last season and will play next to Birmingham’s inside linebacker and defensive play caller Scooby Wright. 

LB Jordan Williams, San Antonio Brahmas

Williams led the XFL in tackles with 89 and finished with an interception. He’s joined by fellow linebacker Tavante Beckett, who was second in the XFL in tackles with 63 in 2023 for the Roughnecks, forming a dynamic duo at inside linebacker for San Antonio.

Others to watch: LB DeMarquis Gates, Stallions, LB; OLB Vic Beasley, Renegades; DE Taco Charleton, Stallions; DE DaMarcus Mitchell, Stallions; DT Toby Johnson, Roughnecks; LB Donald Payne, Renegades.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him at @eric_d_williams.

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