A brief history of Showcase tryouts and success stories

Players take the field in the recent XFL showcase in Arlington, TX, 24 Jul 2022.
Players take the field in an XFL showcase held in Arlington, TX, 24 Jul 2022.

It’s another spring football offseason, which recently, has meant that players from all around the country are able to try out to continue their dream of playing professional football. The UFL’s first Showcase season begins later this week in St. Louis. There will be five more throughout the summer and fall, in addition to two opportunities dedicated solely to specialists.

The XFL and USFL, and now the UFL, have held these Showcase/tryout events with the purpose of leaving no stone unturned to find talent. Prior to its initial relaunch in 2019, the XFL held eight Showcases that were invite-only. Each of these Showcases took place in a city with an XFL franchise. As many as 100 players per session partook in the event, with the ultimate goal of landing in the XFL Draft pool and getting selected by a team.

At the time, the XFL made the names of those tryout players publicly available. Out of over 800 players who participated in total, 21 are still alive and kicking in spring football five years later. Below are the active players who participated in those Showcases, along with the Showcase location in parenthesis followed by their current team:

2019 Showcases (about 800 players)

  1. CB Anthoula Kelly (Los Angeles), DC
  2. S Joe Powell (Tampa Bay), Arlington
  3. LB TJ Neal (Tampa Bay), Memphis
  4. LB Reggie Northrup (Tampa Bay), DC
  5. LB Scooby Wright (Los Angeles), Birmingham
  6. DL Tomasi Laulile (Seattle), Arlington
  7. DL Bunmi Rotimi (Washington), Arlington
  8. DL TJ Barnes (Tampa Bay/St. Louis), DC
  9. DL Toby Johnson (Tampa Bay), Houston
  10. DL Jordan Thompson (St. Louis), Birmingham
  11. WR Vinny Papale (Washington), Memphis
  12. RB Darius Victor (St. Louis), Memphis
  13. QB Luis Perez (St. Louis), Arlington
  14. TE Wes Saxton (Tampa Bay), Memphis
  15. C John Yarbrough (Washington), DC
  16. G Marquis Lucas (Washington), Arlington
  17. G Jordan McCray (Tampa Bay), Memphis
  18. G Terronne Prescod (Tampa Bay), Memphis
  19. OT Avery Gennesy (Dallas), Houston
  20. OT Brandon Haskin (Tampa Bay), Houston
  21. P Brad Wing (Houston/LA), San Antonio

Under new ownership, the league kept the Showcase tryouts, but with a slightly different philosophy. Initially, six Showcases were announced (a seventh was added because the league had so many players on the waiting list), and all but two of them were open tryouts, provided players met certain qualifications and agreed to fork over a $250 entry fee ($410 to include video services).

Unlike in 2019, the league aimed to hit the major regions of the country rather than focusing on hosting in XFL cities. They also held tryouts specifically for HBCU players – an outreach that was important to ownership – and one in Hawaii, due in part to owner Dwayne Johnson having grown up there. Both of those were invite-only camps.

The tryouts featured more players than those held in 2019. Another difference was that the participant names were not made public, either a philosophical shift from those in charge or in an effort to keep the names away from rival USFL. In addition, a separate Showcase was held for kickers, long snappers and punters, whereas those players were integrated into the regular Showcases in 2019. Below are players from those 2022 Showcases currently on UFL rosters:

2022 Showcases (about 1,500 players)

  1. CB KiAnte Hardin (Texas)*, Michigan
  2. CB Nydair Rouse (DC), DC
  3. S Deontay Anderson (Texas), DC
  4. S Mister Harriel (Arizona), Houston
  5. S Markel Roby (Texas)*, Houston
  6. LB JT Tyler (DC), Houston
  7. WR Dee Anderson (HBCU)*, Memphis
  8. WR Blake Jackson (Texas)*, St. Louis
  9. WR Jahcour Pearson (Florida), St. Louis
  10. WR Marcus Simms (DC), Michigan
  11. WR Justin Smith (HBCU)*, San Antonio
  12. WR Terry Wright (Texas)*, Michigan
  13. RB Devin Darrington (Arizona)*, Arlington
  14. QB Quinten Dormady (Arizona)*, San Antonio
  15. QB Deondre Francois (Florida)*, DC
  16. QB Jalan McClendon (Florida), DC
  17. QB Manny Wilkins (Arizona)*, St. Louis
  18. TE Jake Sutherland (DC), St. Louis
  19. OT Marcus Tatum (Florida), Memphis
  20. K Chris Blewitt (specialists), Birmingham
  21. K Matt Coghlin (specialists), Memphis
  22. P Marquette King (specialists), Arlington
  23. P Brad Wing (specialists), San Antonio
  24. LS Alex Matheson (specialists), St. Louis
  25. LS Rex Sunahara (specialists), San Antonio

*- indicates a player was invited by the league

Holding Showcases made sense when the league was looking to populate entire rosters from scratch in 2020 and 2023. There was a real question as to the need for Showcases, then, after the first XFL season. Yet, the league moved forward with them. Last year, six Showcases were held (and later, two supplemental Showcases), including another HBCU-focused one and one for specialists. The price increased to $260 per session.

A difference in 2023 from the previous years was that the Showcase season would culminate in an XFL Combine, held over the course of three days in July at the XFL’s Hub in Arlington. While the Showcases themselves were open tryouts, the Combine was an invitation-only event, where players who stood out from the Showcases would get a second shot to impress XFL scouts and decision-makers. Of the approximately 200 players that attended, teams claimed 28 players that participated, in an unofficial “draft” of sorts after the Combine. The UFL streamed two days of the Combine and also posted some of the top testers on their website. Full lists of participating players in both the Showcases and Combine were not made public by the league, so below is likely only a partial list of players from those events now in the league.

2023 showcases (about 1,400 players, per reports)

  1. K JJ Molson (specialists), Houston
  2. K Ryan Santoso (specialists), San Antonio
  3. CB Jai-Nunn Liddell (HBCU, Combine), Houston
  4. DT Dennis Johnson (Combine), DC
  5. LB Robert Barnes (Combine), San Antonio
  6. LB Callahan O’Reilly (Combine), St. Louis
  7. S James Jones IV (Combine), Arlington

Even more impressive are the players who were part of the Showcases that are now in the NFL. WR Kavontae Turpin’s legal troubles prevented him from even qualifying for the XFL Draft Pool back in 2019, but he was a part of the St. Louis Showcase and is now a key special teamer for the Dallas Cowboys. WR Chris Blair was at the HBCU Showcase in 2022, got picked up by the DC Defenders, and is now an Atlanta Falcon. OT Barry Wesley was at the DC Showcase in ’22, played for the Seattle Sea Dragons in 2023, and is also on the Falcons roster. Obviously, given the number of player participants, the percentage to make it to the NFL is minuscule. But not impossible.

This year, there is no HBCU Showcase. The registration fee has increased once again to $265 per player, with $395 getting you the video package that includes a player performance video. That is down from the price of the video service in 2022. Also, no Combine has been announced thus far, though it is possible one is added later on, as the Showcases don’t finish up in the summer; rather, they drag out into October, the time when the supplemental Showcases were held in 2023. Specialists will once again have separate Showcases, one run by Nick Novak in October (his third year in a row hosting), and another held by John Carney in December. Both will take place in San Diego.

The XFL’s Showcases have been run by American National Combines, dating back to the 2001 version of the XFL. It appears that will be the case again in 2024. The USFL didn’t hold official league-run tryouts; rather, they had an exclusive partnership with HUB Football, the brainchild of sports agent Don Yee. That entity later morphed into GRID Camps. It’s run in a similar fashion, however, with much of the same testing and on-field drills. It’s all about getting eyeballs on as broad a range of players as possible. While not specifically affiliated with the UFL, GRID Camps will have a familiar face leading the tryout in Philadelphia later this month: Memphis Showboats head coach John DeFilippo.

The UFL has carried on the XFL’s slogan of being a “league of opportunity.” These Showcases are a way for the UFL to hold themselves to that standard, offering opportunity to almost anyone who wants to put on a pair of cleats and prove they have what it takes. At worst, it’s a great olive branch to players and agents, and it gets the league some free local press. At best, you just may find the next impact player that can take the league by storm.

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