The Bayou Backs: How Mark Thompson & Wes Hills Became USFL Highlight Machines

During his monstrous performance against the Birmingham Stallions, Wes Hills went for almost two hundreds yards on the ground.
(Justin Casterline/USFL/Getty Images)

Written and Edited by Zach Kangieser

May 23, 2023

   Much like its fellow spring league in the XFL, the United States Football League (now in its second incarnation to the XFL’s third) is a fairly new league trying to capitalize on football’s growing popularity by playing when the dominant NFL is out of season. Also similarly to the XFL, they have established themselves as a second-chance league of sorts. In 2022, the new USFL’s first season, plenty of the USFL’s best players at certain positions were offered NFL tryouts, with a few players (especially USFL MVP Kavontae Turpin) managing to find success while most ended up back in spring football.

However, one thing that both leagues have had in common thus far is that running backs in both leagues have struggled getting looks from the NFL at all. In 2022, a grand total of zero running backs from the USFL got a call from the NFL, and this year the XFL has produced one RB signing thus far (Jacques Patrick of the San Antonio Brahmas). This is a reflection of the value that RBs currently have in the NFL, which is to say, less than ever. 

With the exception of some of the most dominant running backs in the league and the new guy on the block in Bijan Robinson, it’s currently rare for running backs to get investments from the NFL comparable to their skill position peers at wide receiver and tight end. This proportional value to WRs has even trickled down into the spring leagues, where the wideouts from the XFL have been more sought after, even though the most dominant non-QB in the XFL this year was running back Abram Smith.

All of this is to say that so far, in the 2023 USFL season, the two most dominant offensive players, by far, are running backs. In Week 2 this year, Wes Hills of the New Orleans Breakers put himself on the map, rushing for 110 yards and 3 scores on just 18 carries in a dominant performance against the Houston Gamblers. Over the next three weeks, he compiled five more touchdowns while also establishing himself as a solid passing option, snagging 20 passes in that timeframe while remaining the lead RB for the Breakers. 

In Week 3, the Houston Gamblers wound up producing a star running back of their own when Mark Thompson came off the injury report to rack up 113 yards from scrimmage and 3 touchdowns on 24 total touches. Whereas Hills has become an all around playmaker for New Orleans, Thompson’s dominance as a pure, bruising back has turned around Houston’s entire season by adding offensive stability and helping them limit the turnovers that came from the Gamblers passing game.

In the span of just seven combined games over the course of the last month, Hills and Thompson have combined for a staggering sixteen total rushing touchdowns, eight each. Both are just a single score away from tying last year’s leader in rushing scores (Darius Victor, with 9) and both are easily on pace to surpass last year’s record in rushing yards (Jordan Ellis, with 596). They’re the two leaders in rushing yards per game, with Thompson averaging 97 yards per game and Hills averaging 106. And both are top five in the league in scrimmage yards despite neither touching the ball in Week 1.

Without a doubt, these two running backs are easily the league’s RB1 and RB2, and you could make the argument (like I am here) that they are the most explosive offensive skill players in the USFL right now. But the road to get to the USFL wasn’t easy on either of them. Both bounced out of the NFL early, struggled to find their footing, and eventually got another opportunity from their current USFL teams. And now, it’s clear that they’re making the most of it, potentially earning the rare NFL look towards a spring league RB.

Wes Hills’ Uphill Battle 

Hills (left) dives for extra yardage in his Week 5 game against the Memphis Showboats.
(Jaden Powell/USFL/Getty Images)

  Hills first began to get looks his way at Wildwood High School in New Jersey, where he rushed for over 2,100 yards as a senior before committing to the University of Delaware in 2013. He played a full four years for Delaware’s Fightin’ Blue Hens, but only managed to finish his freshman year without injury issues. He did manage to rush for 728 yards and 7 TDs in just seven games in his senior year, but was considered ineligible for any more Division I football after that. In a last ditch effort to keep his NFL dreams alive, he transferred to Division II’s Slippery Rock University in 2018, where he ran for 1,714 yards and 17 TDs. His impressive performance was enough to earn him invitations to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and the Senior Bowl, but he was unfortunately injured during the latter.

Despite his injury, the Arizona Cardinals signed him as a UDFA in May 2019, but he failed to make their final roster, getting cut in August. The struggling Detroit Lions signed him to their practice squad in October, and he did manage to work his way up to the active roster, where he managed to score two touchdowns in a December game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep him around for the next season, and he didn’t make the final roster of the 2020 Lions. Still, not to be deterred, Hills signed a two-year deal with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, spending a year on the practice squad before having a solid 2022 season where he was part of Hamilton’s RB committee, notching 489 total yards on 80 touches and scoring once. Within three days of becoming a free agent, Hills was signed by the New Orleans Breakers, who saw him as a solid RB2 with potential to start.

Hills has absolutely lived up to that potential upside so far. After his absence in Week 1, he exploded onto the scene with his dominant week two showing. Then, against the defending champion Birmingham Stallions, he went even further, tallying an absurd 191 yards and 3 TDs on 34 carries, establishing himself as the lead playmaker on the USFL’s leading offense in an eventual 45-31 win. He then began branching out into receiving more while continuing to lead the Breakers in touches, snagging 18 passes in the last three games while racking up 58 carries in that same timeframe. He hasn’t quite been able to keep up with the pace for himself over his first two games since, but he still averaged 68 yards per game on the ground while tacking on an extra 49 through the air.

At 6’1”, 215 pounds, Hills has good size for a running back, but also has a degree of finesse to his game that most players at the USFL just don’t have. He has good speed and evasiveness in a slightly bigger frame than your typical speedy RB, which means he has more power than most RBs as well. This makes for a good all around archetype that has allowed him to slot in as both an old-school runner and a more varied playmaker that has stepped into the Breakers’ receiving game due to possessing a good touch and fairly soft hands when catching. Admittedly, he does lack elite ability in any one trait, but the skill set that he has has still been enough to tear through the USFL. Still, if he can continue to play at the level he has, putting his versatility on display while torching USFL defenses, he’ll not only be on the all-USFL team by the end of this year, he should absolutely be getting a second crack at an NFL squad.

Mark Thompson’s Second Chance 

During his Week 4 performance, Thompson shredded defenders and averaged over ten yards per carry against the Philadelphia Stars. (Nic Antaya/USFL/Getty Images)

Thompson’s story is one of maturity. He was a standout prospect in high school in the Cheltenham, Philadelphia area, and he became a junior college All-American at Dodge City CC in 2015, rushing for 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns. That standout performance prompted an invitation to play for the Florida Gators, where he would spend the next two years. Unfortunately, this is where a set of self-inflicted problems began to hamper him. In two years with the Gators, he totaled 596 rushing yards, 184 receiving yards and 6 total TDs, including an 85-yard TD pass in the 2016 Outback Bowl against the Iowa Hawkeyes. These were solid numbers but not standout ones, as he was third in an RB committee both years, and failed to move up in the depth charts due to disciplinary issues.

Still, there was enough talent and athleticism displayed to make him a fringe NFL talent from 2018 to 2020, bouncing around no less than five different NFL practice squads and playing in preseason games. But he was never able to make a final roster before a set of legal issues and the COVID pandemic nearly took him out of professional football for good. Still, during this timeframe, it was clear that Thompson grew and adjusted as a person, continuing to keep himself in shape, resolving any of his legal troubles, and focusing on being the best player he could in the hopes that someone would see his potential and give him a break. That someone ended up being the commissioner of the new USFL, Daryl Johnston, a former Super Bowl Champion.

Johnston had been responsible for assembling a talent pool of players for the 2022 USFL season, recruiting over four hundreds players and inviting them to workout with the revived league’s coaches and staff. One of those players was Thompson, who was eventually drafted by the Houston Gamblers in the 28th Round of the inaugural (and as a result, very, very deep) USFL Draft. In the 2022 season he took over as the Gamblers’ lead back for seven games before a shoulder injury ended his productive season. He finished the 2022 campaign with 463 rushing yards and two scores on 114 touches. His talent was clearly there, but he hadn’t quite been able to take things to the next level.

This year, however, he exploded out of the gate from his first touch in Week 3, showing just how valuable he can be. The Houston Gamblers started the year a disappointing 0-2 before Thompson was activated. Since then, the Gamblers are 4-0 and Thompson has amassed 375 rushing yards and 9 TDs while averaging over five yards per carry, using his athleticism and power to his advantage. USFL beat writer RJ Young has compared his bruising, bullheaded rushing style to Derrick Henry’s, and at 6’2”, 235 pounds, Thompson has a similar build as well. When he gets a full head of steam, opposing defenses often need two, sometimes three players to bring him down. He’s only improved the team in the run game, though he hasn’t been catching many passes like Hills. Rather, his dominant running style has forced opponents to respect the pass game more, giving Gamblers QB Kenji Bahar more room to operate and resulting in more big plays in the passing game as well. His presence alone has been an enormous boost to the Gamblers offense, and if he continues to operate at this level, the Gamblers will absolutely ride his wave into the playoffs.

Can They Keep It Going? 

Hills gets a carry and runs with it against the New Jersey Generals. (Ron Schwane/USFL/Getty Images)

Thompson takes off against the Birmingham Stallions.
(Stew Milne/USFL/Getty Images)

      Like the rest of the league, Hills and Thompson only have a few more weeks before the USFL regular season ends and the playoffs are set. They do also have similar concerns about both their ages and durabilities. Hills is set to turn 28 in June and Thompson will be 29 in December, meaning both are already around the average age of an NFL-caliber running back and may not have a lot of time left. Additionally, both have already dealt with injuries in their playing careers, with Hills having dealt with his 2019 injury and a hurt ankle and Thompson having dealt with both a pulled hamstring and a shoulder injury. 

Those pressing question marks could potentially limit them from ever seeing the NFL level again if they rear their ugly heads. But both know that the main question surrounding them right now is not about their performance but about whether or not they can stay healthy. In an interview with FOX Sports, Thompson has stated that one of his current goals is to string together an entire strong season, finishing strong above all. Likewise, in sideline interviews during games, Hills has maintained a similar mentality, stressing the importance of staying healthy even if it means limiting his own production.

Whether or not their production does take a hit, so long as they stay healthy, both running backs will easily be in the conversation for USFL’s Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2023. Both Wes Hills and Mark Thompson have been putting up the best rushing stats in the USFL despite neither starting the year with their peers, and both are dead set on continuing to do so, helping lead their team to the 2023 USFL Championship in the process. Funny enough, the New Orleans Breakers and Houston Gamblers are division rivals, and will play each other again during the final week of the regular season. With playoff implications in play for that matchup, if Hills and Thompson stay healthy, we may see a rushing battle for the ages.