North Carolina products land on XFL leaderboards

More than two dozen players with ties to the state played in the league’s debut weekend

New York Guardians wide receiver Austin Duke, who played for Charlotte in college, had four big returns in his team’s 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Vipers in the rebooted XFL’s opening weekend. (Steve Luciano / AP Photo)

The new XFL kicked off its season with four games over the weekend. The eight-team league has plenty of representation from North Carolina with a total of 29 players who either played for schools in the state or spent time with the Carolina Panthers.

The Old North State is represented on the league’s passing, rushing, receiving, tackles and sacks leader lists, and every team has at least two players with connections to the state. Here’s a look at how the North Carolina products fared in the league’s opening weekend.

On Saturday, the DC Defenders opened with a 31-19 win over the Seattle Dragons.

Wide receiver Rashad Ross, who spent 2019 OTAs and training camp with the Panthers before being cut when the final 53-man roster was set, had two catches for DC for 52 yards, good for eighth in the league. He also scored a touchdown and lost a yard on one rush. Ross added a 64-yard kickoff return.

Elijah Qualls, who spent last year on the Panthers’ practice squad, had two assisted tackles and a fumble recovery at defensive tackle.

Campbell’s Carlos Merritt had two solo tackles at safety, while UNC’s Desmond Lawrence had three solo tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass defenses at corner.

Seattle’s Austin Proehl, a former Tar Heel, led the Dragons with five catches on 10 targets — two of the balls intended for him were intercepted. He made the tackle on one, the other was a pick-six. Proehl had 88 yards and two touchdowns. He’s fourth in the league in receptions, third in yardage and leads with touchdown catches. He also added a 47-yard punt return. NC State’s Johnathan Alston was on the roster at corner but didn’t get any statistics in the game.

Also on Saturday, the Houston Roughnecks beat the L.A. Wildcats, 37-17.

Houston was led on defense by former Panthers starter Kony Ealy. The defensive end had three solo tackles, a half sack, two tackles for loss and five quarterback hits. Houston also invested in players from small schools in North Carolina. Catawba’s Sam Mobley had one catch for a 39-yard touchdown on two targets and is tied for 19th in the league in receiving yardage. He added 58 yards on two punt returns. Johnny Maxey of Mars Hill had a quarterback hit and pass defense at defensive end. Backup quarterback Connor Cook, a former Panthers practice squadder, didn’t get any stats in the game. Neither did cornerback Deji Olatoye out of NC A&T.

Los Angeles backup quarterback Jalan McClendon, a former backup for the Wolfpack before transferring to Baylor, had a rough stint when he got into the game. He was 1-for-4 for zero yards, fumbled, was intercepted and got sacked twice. He also had one yard on one rush. Fellow NC State alumni Mike Stevens and Jack Tocho had better days. Stevens had three solo tackles and a pass defense at corner, while Tocho had one solo tackle at safety.

UNC’s Elijah Hood had 43 yards on 12 rushes, good for fourth in the league.

On Sunday, the New York Guardians beat the Tampa Bay Vipers, 23-3.

Charlotte 49ers receiver Austin Duke starred on special teams for New York, returning kicks for 59 and 67 yards and punts for 39 and 38.

Former UNC quarterback Marquise Williams didn’t get any statistics in the game. He was one of several former N.C. products not to see time for New York, including Wake running back Matt Colburn and former Panthers safety Demetrious Cox, who played four games in 2017. Lineman Ian Silberman, a Panthers practice squadder in 2018, also didn’t get any statistics in the game.

Tampa Bay had a pair of Wake Forest defensive tackles on the roster. Josh Banks had a pass defense, while Nikita Whitlock had three tackles, two solo, with a quarterback hit, tackle for loss and pass defense.

In the final Sunday game, the St. Louis BattleHawks beat the Dallas Renegades, 15-9.

St. Louis had plenty of former Panthers, including two offensive linemen — guard Brian Folkerts, who played for the team in 2013 and 2014, and tackle Andrew McDonald, who spent those same two seasons on the practice squad. They didn’t have any statistics in the game. 2014 Panthers practice squad member Marcus Lucas had four catches on six targets for 40 yards, 17th in the XFL.

Dallas quarterback Philip Nelson, an East Carolina product, was 33-of-42 for 209, sixth-most in the league. He had no touchdowns and one interception for a 77.5 rating and was sacked four times.

Former Panther backup running back Cameron Artis-Payne had two rushes for six yards and four catches for 13 yards on four targets. Frank Alexander, a Panthers defensive end from 2012 to 2015, had five tackles, four solo, one sack, one tackle for loss and a quarterback hit.

Another former Panther, ECU’s Josh Hawkins, added two tackles, one solo.