Alex McGough’s moments of improvisation come every game. More accurately, they come several times a game.
Obviously, they aren’t scripted. At times, he has to go back and watch the film to see exactly how he did what he did. But, even though it’s not a play call, his how-did-he-pull-that-off moments have become expected.
“It’s like I say, ‘Just how we drew it up,’” said Birmingham Stallions head coach Skip Holtz, whose team has a huge USFL South showdown with the New Orleans Breakers on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Protective Stadium. “You know, ‘Go back there and scramble around for 15 seconds and then find somebody open.’ Alex has got, I’m going to say a unique ability. He can extend some plays, make some things happen. But he does a great job of keeping his eyes downfield. You look at a lot of the bigger plays are scramble plays and he adjusts.”
In some ways, it isn’t entirely improvisation. Scramble drills are a daily routine for the Stallions offense. Receivers have rules and guidelines on where to go once a scramble begins. Tight end Jace Sternberger said that helps. But, once the games begin, the rules can change.
“At the end of the day, most of us have played football for a long time, it kind of goes back to recess,” Sternberger said. “You just got to make something happen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Wide receiver Davion Davis, who was on the receiving of a touchdown pass earlier this after a 14-second scramble, smiled when asked if those plays seem a little like backyard football.
“That’s the best way to describe it, honestly, outside, barefooted and everything,” Davis said. “It brings back memories.”
Using his legs wasn’t as prevalent for McGough during four productive seasons at Florida International University. He rushed for 16 touchdowns in 45 games but only had 518 career yards on the ground. He passed for 9,084 yards with 65 touchdowns and 37 interceptions.
“I was heavier in college and I wasn’t as mobile,” said McGough, who was listed at 6-foot-3 and 218-pounds as a senior at FIU. “I didn’t think I was the full potential of me. I cut about 15-20 pounds. The ability to use my legs, I think, puts a lot of pressure on the defense. I think I’ve grown mentally in seeing the coverages and seeing the blitzes and realizing where my pressure comes from and where my relief throws are. I think it’s a new me.”
Truthfully, part of the reason for change was out of his control. McGough said for most of his life he’s fought through stomach issues. He felt bloated. His stomach, he said, “always felt weird and heavy.” Energy, at times, was an issue. It wasn’t until his senior year at FIU that he was diagnosed with allergies.
“I just thought it was gluten and dairy, so I stopped that for a year or two,” McGough said.
It wasn’t until his second year in professional football that he learned that it was more than that. He was with the Houston Texans, his third NFL stop in just over a year, and was asked to add some weight to possibly play a flex receiver position. At the time, he weighed just under 200 pounds. He was asked to add at least 20 pounds.
He visited a nutritionist to come up with a plan.
“They tested my blood for all these things that my body doesn’t really like,” McGough said. “It came back with this list.”
The list included gluten, basil, soy, dairy, eggs, food coloring and “just some other random stuff.”
“They gave me a plan to follow on how to gain weight,” McGough said. “Over time, I’ve just adapted it to maintaining weight and how to recover the best. It just helped me tremendously in all aspects. I think if you’re disciplined in one area of your life, it affects every other aspect of your life. I've really noticed that greatly in the past year and a half. I’m just trying to continue that forever.”
His diet consists of several small meals each day. During the season, McGough said, he rarely strays outside of his diet. Giving up eggs, he said, was the toughest part.
“I used to eat eggs three or four times a day,” McGough said. “My dad used to make us eggs in the morning. I miss eggs a lot. I miss breakfast food, like pancakes.”
Other than that, though, he’s turned it into a positive. He found a brand of cookies – Sweet Loren’s – that is filled with ingredients he can eat. That has become a special treat that he splurges on from time to time. During the season, though, McGough remains strict on his diet.
Sternberger, who became roommates with McGough when joining the team this season, doesn’t share the same diet.
“We balance each other out,” Sternberger said with a laugh. “I just told him from Day One, I’m already embarrassed to eat around you because your diet is so much better than mine. He just jokes about it.”
On the field, McGough has been outstanding. He’s taken nearly every snap since the opening game injury to J’Mar Smith and has put together USFL Player of the Year-type numbers. He is 105 of 155 for 1,05 yards. He the USFL in completion percentage (67.7) and passing touchdowns (12). He also has a team-best 296 rushing yards with three touchdowns.
Best of all, he’s done it his own way. In a league that is built around its television product, McGough is a star. It doesn’t take long to see or hear that he is having fun on the field. This past Saturday, he was shoved out of bounds while scrambling. His momentum took him into a wall. Before trotting back on the field, he had words with the wall, because it didn’t move out of his way.
It was his way of having fun on the field, which keeps him calm and productive. Or was McGough describes it as his “free bird mind.” That approach fits in nicely with the way he improvises once the ball is snapped.
“Coach (Holtz) does a really good job of kind of letting me be me,” McGough said. “I think that’s the biggest part of my game. I do think, sometimes (to others) it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ But, it’s just the reaction to what I’m seeing. I’m just playing, really, off instincts and what I’m seeing.”
However, in this case, the “free bird mind” and improv is just part of what makes him successful.
“He’s organized,” Sternberger said. “He’s goofy, for sure, but not like you think. When we were in the hotel, he was in bed like 9 o’clock. He’s very controlled. Obviously, y’all have seen his diet. He’s very sleep disciplined. He has to get his sleep or he’s kind of cranky in the morning. He’s not as wild as people would think. I thought he was crazy wild man, in a fun way, but he’s definitely more mature than he comes off. But he also has fun.”
Don’t miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.