Shatel: Who's a fan of another pro football league? Several former Huskers who open play in the AAF

From left, Kenny Bell, De’Mornay Pierson-El, Josh Banderas and Terrell Newby open play with the AAF’s Salt Lake Stallions on Sunday. The new pro league, which aims to be a be a developmental circuit for the NFL, also features former Husker coach Mike Riley. “It’s the happiest I’ve been playing football in a long time,” said Bell, who was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2015.

Does the world need another professional football league?

Let’s ask former Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas, whose shot at the NFL was cut short by an untimely calf injury two years ago. Banderas has spent the past two seasons in Lincoln, hanging TVs and other odd jobs while waiting for the phone to ring.

Let’s ask Kenny Bell. Drafted by Tampa Bay in 2015, one of Nebraska’s all-time leading receivers spent the past four seasons on the practice squads and injured reserve lists in Tampa, Baltimore and Denver with a hamstring injury that would never quite heal.

Bell will finally get on the field Sunday, when the Salt Lake Huskers play the Arizona Hotshots at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe live on the NFL Network.

OK, OK. It’s actually the Salt Lake Stallions. Bell, Banderas and former NU teammates Terrell Newby and De’Mornay Pierson-El make up the group you can call the Salt Lake Huskers.

The eight-team Alliance of American Football kicked off Saturday night. It’s the latest pro football startup that wants to be the developmental league to the NFL.

Does it have a better chance to stick than the others that have tried and failed? It’s got star power, for sure.

The co-founders are Bill Polian, a legendary general manager in the NFL, and Charlie Ebersol, son of the iconic NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol.

While there might not be a lot of big names on the field, there will be several on the sideline. The AAF coaches include Steve Spurrier (Orlando), Mike Martz (San Diego), Dennis Erickson (Salt Lake), Mike Singletary (Memphis), Rick Neuheisel (Arizona) and Mike Riley (San Antonio). Remember him?

Like most startups, the AAF wants to be unique. The goal is to play each game in 2½ hours or less. There are fewer commercials during the broadcast. And check out some of these rules: (Hint: the AAF is not for kickers.)

There are no kickoffs. Drives start at the 25 at the beginning of the game and after scores. There are no extra-point kicks, teams must always go for two.

There are also no onside kicks, but there is an onside option if the team is behind by at least 17 and there’s under five minutes to go in the game. In the onside conversion, the team gets the ball at its own 28 and must convert a fourth-and-12 — or the ball goes to the opponent.

The idea is not only to save time, but physical wear and tear.

In overtime, the teams get the ball on the 10-yard line with four downs and must go for two if they score. No field goals in overtime.

Also, teams can only rush five defenders and there are no blitzes from the secondary. Replays are designed to go quicker, too, with the on-field official communicating with the replay official via an earpiece.

The teams are set up almost regionally, with each of the eight designated to take players from colleges near them. Former Nebraska players are designated to play for Salt Lake City, along with several Utah and BYU players. (Should have had a team in Omaha.)

Each of the eight AAF teams were assigned four NFL teams and own the rights to players who were cut by those NFL teams.

Got it? Play ball.

“I love it,” Bell said. “It’s the happiest I’ve been playing football in a long time. It’s less stressful but there is also more one-on-one coaching. I’m really thankful to be here.”

Bell, a fifth-round pick by Tampa, injured his hamstring in the second exhibition game in 2015 and spent the season on IR. He was cut by Tampa after the 2016 preseason then signed by the Ravens and put on the practice squad.

Meanwhile, he reinjured the hamstring and signed a futures contract with Baltimore after the season. The Ravens released him and put him back on the practice squad in 2017 as he nursed the hamstring.

Bell, a Boulder, Colorado, native whose father played for the Broncos, signed a futures contract with Denver in 2018 but struggled with the hamstring and was released.

Now he’s happy to report that the hamstring is fully healed and tested through a training camp in San Antonio the past month. Bell is ready to resume his pro career, with all NFL eyes watching.

“Every time I’ve been let go, it’s never been an issue of being able to play (in the NFL),” Bell said. “It’s been not being healthy.

“I’m looking forward to showcasing my talents. I’m making sure I give my best effort to Salt Lake and focus on playing well before I worry about (NFL).”

The AAF will run NFL schemes to showcase its players to general managers and coaches.

Much of Erickson’s career was in college football, but he was coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Salt Lake’s offensive coordinator, Tim Lappano, was recently receivers coach for Detroit. Bell’s receivers coach is Lamar Thomas, the former Miami Hurricane who also played in the NFL.

“The entire atmosphere in this league is very professional, very NFL-like,” Bell said.

That suits Banderas. His free agent trial with the Broncos ended with him being cut before camp thanks to the injury. He was healthy last year, but the phone never rang.

“You’re waiting on their call,” Banderas said. “I have an agent who is making calls. I went to a (CFL) tryout in Las Vegas. Then we heard about this league and I went to a combine in Atlanta.

“You don’t want to say it’s your last shot to play, but this is the last legit thing that’s going to be around. You got to put all your cards in it.”

Banderas is playing middle linebacker in Salt Lake’s 4-3, which fits Bando to a tee. The coordinator is Donnie Henderson, who has bounced from college to the NFL the past 30 years. The expectation is to play hard, and do your job. They’re playing for a future as much as they are to win.

“He’s (Erickson) cool,” Banderas said. “He’s an older guy so he’s not going to be super fiery, yelling all the time. Keep your nose clean and do whatever you can to win, that’s been his mantra to us.”

The other former Huskers are Newby, the running back who was waived by Minnesota after the 2017 preseason, and Pierson-El, who had a training camp with Washington and signed with the CFL.

“It’s been great to have guys you know, someone you can hang with or go have lunch with,” Banderas said. “None of us ever got anywhere, so this is kind of the proving grounds.”

The AAF is a small world, which will get smaller March 23 and April 12 — when the Salt Lake Huskers play San Antonio. That’s when Banderas, Pierson-El and Newby meet up with Riley, their former NU coach (and San Antonio receivers coach Keith Williams).

“They’ve had a couple of leaguewide events, where we’ve seen Coach Riley,” Banderas said. “He’s said he misses the guys. He said he wished he could text so and so ‘good game’ or ‘Happy Birthday’ or something. But he doesn’t feel like he really can.

“That’s too bad. I’ll always keep in touch with those coaches and players on those teams.”

They’re not done yet.

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