Defenders run game, led by No. 1 pick Abram Smith, is best in the league

DC Defenders running back Abram Smith went into the 2023 XFL season with defined goals.

“I wanted to be the best defenseman in the league,” Smith said this week. “I wanted to show my skills. I wanted to show everyone who believed in me that there is still something to believe in; that my dream is not going anywhere anytime soon.”

The season is only half over, but the 24-year-old Baylor University bruise ticks boxes on every one of those benchmarks.

The best in the league? Smith leads all other rushers by 177 yards.

show skills? Just look at his 62-yard touchdown streak against the St. Louis Battlehawks last weekend. Or, even better, his 70-yard touchdown waltz later in the game.

Keep the dream alive? Oh yeah.

Smith isn’t the only one finding success on DC’s run-heavy offense. Thanks to a stellar line and a collection of talented runners centered around Smith — including quarterbacks Jordan Ta’amu and D’Eriq King — the defenders have rushed for 174 yards per game on their way to a 5-0 record.

“The coaching staff did a great job getting guys going,” said offensive lineman Ty Clary. “Jordan and D’Eriq can both walk. Our running backs were great. The O-Line space, we feel like a physical space. It’s just the identity that was instilled from the start.”

The other seven XFL teams base their offense on passing. Defenders are the only team to average more rushing yards than passing yards; no other team has gained even 100 yards per game on the ground.

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DC has 870 rushing yards; The Seattle Sea Dragons are second with 466. Smith has nearly as many rushing yards at 432.

Not only that, under offensive coordinator Fred Kaiss, the Defenders let the ball run more than any other team. They’re also the most effective team on the ground, with DC leading the league in yards per carry and first-down percentage.

“When you see running backs running hard and not just running into open gaps — they block back there too — you want more for them,” Clary said.

Smith isn’t the only one making big numbers. Ta’amu, the starting quarterback, is fourth in the league with 208 yards. King, the backup quarterback who plays significant snaps on the Defenders offense, leads the league with five quick touchdowns.

Even running back, Smith has some great buddies. Ryquell Armstead, a former Temple University 1,000-yard rusher and Jacksonville Jaguars running back, is seventh in the league in rushing yards and third in rushing for 10 yards or more.

“Whoever we have back there, and we’ve had two or three guys in that position, they’ve all done a great job,” said DC offensive line coach Russ Ehrenfeld. “None of these guys are selfish. It’s not about her. It’s about the team.”

Smith’s selflessness is ingrained in his DNA. There’s no better example than his college career in Waco, Texas. After spending his first two seasons as a running back, Baylor had a team need at linebacker and the coaching staff moved him to the position during the 2020 season.

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He made 48 tackles in five games but switched back to running back ahead of the 2021 season. Not only did Smith win the seed, but the Abilene, Texas native also emerged as one of the best running backs in the Big 12. Smith rushed for 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns with 257 carries.

Smith said his experience as a linebacker helped him as a running back. His physicality increased. His knowledge of defense concepts like Gap Integrity grew. He says he can look at a defense and now see where a player should be instead of where they are right now.

“Every time I step onto the field, I know I have to produce,” Smith said. “I know I have something to show. When I first played against special teams, I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted my parents to see more. I know I had more in me. So that I can play linebacker and then running back, I just wanted to show what I can do on the field.”

After his outstanding senior year, Smith was undone in the NFL Draft. He was signed by the New Orleans Saints but was released in late August.

Then the defenders called. DC selected him with the #1 overall pick of the offensive capability position portion of the XFL draft.

“I didn’t really know much about Abram until our offensive coordinator, Coach Kaiss, started talking about him before he even came to Texas,” Ehrenfeld said. “Then when I just spoke to some other people who are friends of mine who are either in the coaching profession or maybe ex-players who knew him, they said, ‘Coach, this guy is a great player.'”

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Weeks of work at training camp and the first few weeks of the season culminated in last week’s monster game for Smith and the offensive line.

Smith carried the ball 23 times for 215 yards and three points, including his two long touchdown carries. The offensive line also had a tag. On his two long runs, Smith was virtually untouched as he broke the line and headed for the end zone.

The development of the offensive line in the first half of the season was impressive and they managed it despite playing with four different players in the center.

Ehrenfeld emphasizes his group’s good technique and fundamentals, and they are devoted to his teachings and the overall offensive scheme.

“I love my boys up front,” Smith said. “You know that. You know I trust you. They know I stand behind them and follow them wherever they take me.”

Smith and the rest of the DC rushers will be following them a lot more in the coming weeks.

Ehrenfeld said the defenders had no plans to slow their frenzied attack.

“We’re going to let it go until people make us stop it.”

The North Division’s leading defenders play Monday night’s prime time against the South Division’s top team, the Houston Roughnecks, in DC at 7:00 p.m. EDT on ESPN2.

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