BIRMINGHAM — Skip Holtz sent a clear message to his Birmingham Stallions team when they first gathered for practice less than two weeks ago.

The USFL championship, which was won last season, belongs to last year's team. This year's team, though, has won nothing.

"You look at last year, we won a championship, that was great," Holtz said. "It's a new year. There have only been eight return winners in the NFL since 1965. In the first eight years, there were four. There have only been four in the last 45 years. It's hard to repeat. It's hard to do this. The only way we're going to do it is if we take the mindset that we're humble and hungry, and we keep banging that rock and get as good as we can be. We're not King of the Mountain. We're 0-0, and we're going to get what we earn this year."

The work has begun.

"I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed getting back out here on the grass, getting your heart rate up," Holtz said. "During the offseason, they can lift weights. They can run, they can think of what we could call and the game plan type of deal. But you can't simulate 11 on 11. Coming out here, we've waited eight months for this. Now, having the opportunity to get it, absolutely love it."

Holtz said the Stallions return about 80% of the roster from last year's championship. Quarterbacks J'Mar Smith and Alex McGough return, as do leading rushers CJ Marable and Bo Scarbrough and receiver Marlon Williams. Defensive end Jonathan Newsome, linebacker Scooby Wright III and cornerbacks Lorenzo Burn and Brian Allen are among the returnees on defense.

Starting camp with that core was different than a year ago when everyone was in their first USFL season.

 "To have 80% back, those guys are coaching the new guys, the rookies," said Holtz, who has 58 players on the current roster and must cut down to 53 by the start of a season that begins on April 15. "We now have rookies. Last year, everybody was a rookie. We have rookies and vets. We've got a lot of guys that are returning that know what to do. I think they've done a great job of coaching the newer players on how we do things, how we execute. Lot of coaching going on, not just from the coaches."

USFL teams don't the luxury of off-season practices or team workouts. Holtz said the coaches and players had Zoom calls to help with learning and retention of the playbook. He said that each time a new player signed in the offseason, they would send them a playbook to begin the learning process. It still was much easier on the veterans once practice began.

"It's very refreshing to know that very first day we came out there, 80% of the playbook was in," Holtz said. "The vets were good. The rookies were swimming a little bit, but they're catching up."

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