Arizona Hotshots shine in debut win

Arizona Hotshots shine in debut win

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CEO of the AAF, Charlie Ebersol, stops by the USA TODAY studio to discuss the start of the new football league.
USA TODAY

Before his team took the field on Sunday night for its Alliance of American Football debut, Arizona Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel could only make one promise.

Regardless of how many fans showed up to watch the game in person at Sun Devil Stadium or chose to watch it on television via the NFL Network, Neuheisel said, “they’re going to see great effort.”

“I can’t tell you it’s going to be perfect,” Neuheisel added. “We’ve only been together for a very short amount of time. But I will tell you the fans are going to be entertained because this a fun group and when they start playing that (Lil Jon) song ‘Shots, shots, shots, shots, shots, shots,’ I guarantee you’re going to get a little bounce in your step.”

Playing a frenetic up-tempo offense and utilizing an attacking defense that forced three turnovers, the Hotshots didn’t disappoint and they more than backed up their coach’s words in the form of a 38-22 victory over the Salt Lake Stallions.

The Hotshots didn’t offer an attendance figure, but the smallish crowd estimated to be somewhere between 10,000-15,000 were vocal and seemed to genuinely enjoy the AAF experience.

Quarterback John Wolford, getting the start ahead of Trevor Knight, who had been listed No. 1 on the depth chart, threw for four touchdowns and 275 yards to spark the Hotshots. Wolford, a former standout at Wake Forest who ended his college career passing for 8,794 yards and 59 touchdowns, including 19 more rushing scores, repeatedly shredded the Stallions’ secondary on 18-of-29 passing.

“It’s exciting. You’re part of a start-up, everything is a first,” Wolford said when asked what it felt like to be a part of the Hotshots’ debut. “Every pass is the first pass, the first completion, the first touchdown. So it’s fun.

“I thought the league has done a great job so far. Everything is extremely well run and we had some good football tonight so it’s something to be proud of.”

Wolford was so sharp with his throws, he was even drawing comparisons to Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints by NFL Network analysts Maurice Jones Drew and Marvin Lewis. But Wolford, who spent time with the Jets last summer, wasn’t the only standout for the Hotshots in their season opener.

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Wide receiver Rashad Ross, formerly of Arizona State, caught five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns. His 36-yard touchdown reception on a slant route in the second quarter help put the Hotshots up 16-8 in the second quarter and then in the third, he caught a 4-yard fade from Wolford in the corner of the end zone that helped Arizona increase its lead to 27-16.

“It was great to come back to my college stadium and perform the way I did,” Ross said. “I haven’t been playing football since OTAs and the preseason with the Cardinals, so to come and show that i still have it, my talent, and actually get an opportunity, it’s just great.”

Running back Jhurell Pressley, who played collegiately at New Mexico, rushed for a game-high 64 yards on 18 carries and caught a 30-yard pass for a touchdown. He also ran in a two-point conversion.

Several players shined defensively with cornerback Robert Nelson Jr., linebacker Steven Johnson and defensive end Will Sutton leading the way.

Nelson had an interception and a handful of pass defenses, not to mention a couple of hard-hitting tackles that ignited the crowd. Johnson, who has played in 74 career NFL games for four different teams, also had an interception and led the Hotshots in tackles. Sutton, the former ASU standout, was a disruptor up front and regularly brought pressure on Salt Lake quarterback Josh Woodrum until Woodrum left the game in the second half with a hamstring injury.

The Stallions were forced to turn to backup Matt Linehan, but he wasn’t able to overcome Arizona’s swarming defense, which held Salt Lake to just 240 total yards. The Hotshots, meanwhile, accounted for 416 yards.

“It was pretty simple to me. They kicked our rear ends,” Stallions coach Dennis Erickson said. “That’s pretty basic football. … We just made too many mistakes. They’ve got some good players. That quarterback played pretty darn good.”

Wolford, who was a finance major in college, was preparing for life after football a year ago at this time. He took an internship at a small private equity firm in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was ready to pivot into a full-time job until he was able to get a workout with the Jets.

A handful of teams in the AAF were already interested in him and when he eventually was released by the Jets, the Hotshots were able to sign him. He was the star of the night in Tempe, to be sure.

“It’s incredible what can be done when you have the right kind of pupils,” Hotshots head coach Rick Neuheisel said. “The players in this league have such buy-in.”

Wolford opened the scoring by hitting tight end Gerald Christian with a 5-yard touchdown pass near the end of the first quarter. He was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2015 NFL draft when he was picked last overall by the Cardinals, but Christian was relevant to the Hotshots with their first touchdown in franchise history. Larry Rose III converted the two-point conversion with a run into the end zone.

Hotshots kicker Nick Folk, the 11-year NFL veteran who played collegiately at Arizona, kicked a 53-yard field goal in the second quarter and added a 32-yarder in the fourth to close out the scoring.

Follow the Arizona Republic‘s Bob McManaman on Twitter @azbobbymac.

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