2024 UFL Houston Roughnecks Season Summary

(L-R) Anthony Ratliff-Williams #1, Justin Hall #11 and T.J. Pledger IV #5 of the Houston Roughnecks talk prior to the game against the Birmingham Stallions at Rice Stadium on April 27, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Kevin M. Cox/UFL/Getty Images)

This is part one of what will be an eight-part look at each UFL team’s 2024 season.

What went right

Believe it or not, there were some positives to take out of 2024 for the 1-9 Roughnecks. They may have found their 2025 quarterback in Nolan Henderson. Henderson’s passing was average but he provided a different dimension with his running ability. Getting a full training camp of reps as the starter could be the experience Henderson needs to take the next step. Justin Hall proved to be a capable number one wide receiver for the team, regardless of who was under center. Houston’s defense finished among the top half of the league in most categories. DE Chris Odom was their lone representative on the All-UFL Team. Kicker JJ Molson offered stability at that position. Despite their record, Houston stayed competitive down the stretch, losing all of their last four by just one possession, with three of those losses to playoff teams.

What went wrong

Injuries and inconsistency ravaged the quarterback position. Henderson, Jarrett Guarantano and Reid Sinnett all shared time and none distinguished themselves. The team’s offensive line was a cause for a lot of the problems, failing to protect in the pass game and to create holes in the run game. They finished tied for last in yards per rush and it would be much lower without Henderson’s scrambling factored in. Outside of Hall, the rest of the receivers struggled to make an impact. Key offensive weapons, including Guarantano, RB Mark Thompson, RB Kirk Merritt, and others spent significant time sidelined with injuries. The Roughnecks were easily the most penalized team in the UFL. Punter Hunter Niswander had three punts blocked.

Offensive MVP

No one would’ve batted an eye had WR Justin Hall made the All-UFL Team. He finished tied for second in the league in receptions and third in receiving yardage. It’s tempting to imagine what his numbers would’ve looked like had Houston not been forced to start three different players at QB this year. Hall was a useful chess piece for Houston’s offense, lining up all over the formation, even running the ball twice. The coaching staff should look to manufacture more touches for Hall in 2025 in a variety of different ways.

Defensive MVP

The 2022 USFL Defensive Player of the Year, DE Chris Odom, has played in the NFL, CFL, AAF, and USFL in addition to the UFL. As expected, he was the top pass-rushing threat coming off the edge for Houston, leading the team with eight tackles for loss, five sacks and tying for the lead with two forced fumbles on his way to making the All-UFL Team. Odom was also tops in the team in tackles among defensive linemen. In today’s football, you have to be able to affect the quarterback. Odom did just that and he was a big reason Houston was able to be competitive at the end of several of their games.

J.J. Molson #39 of the Houston Roughnecks kicks the ball against the Birmingham Stallions during the third quarter in the game at Rice Stadium on April 27, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jack Gorman/UFL/Getty Images)

Special Teams MVP

When you have a struggling offense, it’s imperative you have an accurate kicker, since points become even more of a premium. Houston had that in K JJ Molson. Molson was good on over 80% of his kicks with a long of 62 yards. Two of his misses came from beyond 50, so he was near automatic inside that range. That big leg also helped on kickoffs, where getting distance was important with the league’s adoption of the more traditional-style kickoff.

Most likely to succeed (in getting NFL opportunities)

Odom has cycled in and out of the NFL, and he may get one more bite at the apple. Hall’s 5’8″ stature could prevent NFL teams from giving him the look he deserves. A couple of the team’s defensive backs, like Markel Roby, could be intriguing. NFL teams are always looking for strong legs, allowing the door to potentially open for Molson. WR Keke Chism, at 6’4″, has the size to perhaps interest a team or two. The pickings may be thin here overall.

Nolan Henderson #14 of the Houston Roughnecks scrambles during the third quarter against the Memphis Showboats at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium on June 02, 2024 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Wes Hale/UFL/Getty Images)

QB concern level for 2025 (1-5)

It’s possible Henderson is the favorite to start next year, but he should by no means prevent Houston from looking to upgrade at QB in the off-season. At best, Henderson should enter camp competing for the number one job, whether it’s against Guarantano or another player from outside the organization. Reid Sinnett indicated he may be ready to hang up his cleats, which could leave an open space on the camp roster for a QB. There’s potential here for a strong run game with Mark Thompson and TJ Pledger, as well as Hall as the top receiver. It may not matter who’s at quarterback if the offensive line doesn’t get fixed. Henderson’s experience in spring football and with Houston prevents this from being red-alert concern, but it’s still a 4.

Head coach CJ Johnson of the Houston Roughnecks looks on during the second half against the St. Louis Battlehawks at The Dome at America’s Center on May 04, 2024 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael Thomas/UFL/Getty Images)
Head coach CJ Johnson of the Houston Roughnecks looks on during the second half against the St. Louis Battlehawks at The Dome at America’s Center on May 04, 2024 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael Thomas/UFL/Getty Images)

Head coach hot seat rating (1-5)

Curtis Johnson’s 5-5 record as head coach of the Houston Gamblers in 2023 could buy him an extra year at the helm in 2025. Neither the USFL nor the XFL have yet fired a head coach for on-field performance (at least publicly), and since the same leadership now steers the UFL ship, we’ll see if they have a quick hook for Johnson. Johnson is a respected NFL position coach, so perhaps, like with Rod Woodson last year, they’ll agree to a mutual parting of the ways if it comes to that. His teams were ill-prepared this year, as the types of penalties the team accrued (several of the pre-snap variety) indicated a lack of discipline and focus, which often falls on coaching. Johnson also seemed overmatched when it came to in-game decision-making. If he does return, he’ll have the hottest seat of them all at a 5.

Offseason needs for 2025

Offensive line and quarterback, in any order, are the top two. Depth at receiver behind Justin Hall would help ease his burden – just two receivers caught more than 20 balls on the season. Tight ends were sparsely used in the pass game; making that more of a focus could give the QB more options. LB Reuben Foster provides leadership and ferocious tackling in the middle of the defense, but he was banged up this year and isn’t getting any younger. Linebacker should be a need over the other defensive positions. Prioritizing players with extensive special teams experience would be wise given the numerous break-downs on the punt team. General depth could be used everywhere, as injuries really took their toll due to the drop-off between first-team and second-team players.

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