2023 AFI Season Preview — Division 1

It’s almost here! The 2023 AFI Kitted Season is upon us, with every Irish American football enthusiast staring a hole though Kickoff Sunday March 5th on their calendar. Days remain until it all begins, so let’s break down each division as they enter the 2023 season!

NI Razorbacks (3-5 in 2022 Division 2)
The Razorbacks made the headlines this offseason both with their promotion to Division 1 and with what can only be described as an excellent recruitment campaign between July and March. While home grown talent from 2022 was much celebrated in their own right last season, bringing in the likes of DE Danny Moll from the Knights, RB Declan Curran and LB Ryan Beckett from rivals Antrim Jets, and other key imports have led to the Razorbacks seeming like a force to be reckoned with this season. Having experience from players who have competed in all 3 divisions of AFI football will be a big boost to their rookies, and will obviously make HC Gareth Millar’s job a lot easier come gameday. Just how well these new pieces gel together will be the difference-maker, particularly on offense in a division that has an array of strong defenses they will need to compete against.

Louth Mavericks (7-1 in 2022 Division 2, Bowl finalists)
The Mavericks faded off towards the end of the 2022 season, ending in the capitulation that was the Division 2 Bowl game against the Jets. Louth do have the sting from that final to fuel them this season, however, with their being sure-fire efforts put in this offseason to not have that feeling replicated in 2023. Known names like Dec Mulvihill and QB Nathan Hearty return this season, as does 2022 breakout RB/DB Brendan Simms, who appeared all over the stats sheets in Mavericks games last season. The athletic young flex piece was a key part of Louth’s success last year, and Coach Angelo will surely look to find more ways to get him, as well as promising rookie WR Alex Hanratty, open in a tough division. The Mavericks may have an extra leg up on their Division 2 promotees considering their club experience in this division and against these teams, with the  UL Vikings being the only team they have never crossed paths with. In their 10th anniversary as a club, will the Louth Mavericks make a good push towards playoff contention in 2023?

Antrim Jets (5-3 in 2022 Division 2, Division 2 Champions)
Last year’s Division 2 Champions, despite being promoted, are a slightly unknown quantity. As noted, they have lost a few star players, and while that may cause some concern on the surface, HC Donal McCloskey will be confident in his new recruits heading into Division 1’s kickoff, as noted on his appearance on Talkin’ Balls Podcast. The Jets will be willing to air things out this year as they did last year, with QB Scot McClean leading the charge on offense. Matt Graham and other experienced pieces on defense will keep that unit solid against some of the higher powered offenses they will face this season — the Jets pitched 4 offensive shutouts last season, and they’ll be looking for similar production this season in their push towards the 2023 Division 1 playoffs.

Donegal / Derry Vipers (3-4-1 in 2022 Division 1)
The Vipers enter this season still in a bit of a transition but definitely gearing towards a promising period for the club. LB/DB Darren Quinn and WR Chad Higgins will be big losses for the red and yellow, especially in the opening stretch of the season, but the introduction of some key players from the Vipers youth squad and their development during this season will likely make HC Paddy Maguire’s side even stronger into the playoff stretch. The Vipers have remained a consistently competitive squad in this division, with 2023 shaping to be no different. After getting their first taste of playoff football for the first time since 2018, Donegal / Derry will be firing on all cylinders this season to get back there again and punch their ticket to the Division 1 Bowl game.

Cill Dara Crusaders (4-4 in 2022 Division 1)
The Crusaders come into this season in good shape to push towards the Bowl game in Division 1. Playing two fantastic games with last year’s finalists UL Vikings (including a 2-point margin loss in the playoffs and an 86-point thriller in Newbridge), Cill Dara have been a quiet breeding ground for Ireland’s top home-grown talent — former GFL and current LNFA QB Matty O’Meara, Tomi Oweyo of the ELF’s Munich Ravens, and current QB Jordan Farrell all being developed in Cill Dara’s system. RB Luke Carey, another fast riser from last year, will look to keep his form from last year carrying forward and make some big plays for the Crusaders offense. Cill Dara’s pass defense has improved on paper in the offseason too, with UCD’s Carl Bracken coming on board at Safety, Cormac Butler returning from injury and, of course, Craig and Kyle Dooley attacking off the edges. Considering their history with UL in close games, with the Rhinos and with players on the rise, the Crusaders will be a team to look out for come the end of the season.

UL Vikings (5-2-1 in 2022 Division 1, Bowl finalists)
Coming so close to promotion last season, the Vikings come into this season as one of the favourites to win Division 1 in 2023. Much of this relies on the work of OC Liam Ryan, who has been around the football scene in Ireland for two decades and introduced the triple option element to the UL offense that baffled defenses in this division last year. RBs Sean Grace and Eoin Rudkins both had amazing years last year cutting through teams on the ground, while on defense the likes of DE William Campbell and Robert Browne terrorized offensive lines, eclipsing 15 sacks on the season between them (the most prolific pass rush duo in Ireland in 2022). Being able to build off of the success of last season, along with the itch to correct last July’s heartbreak and a strong coaching staff that will keep them focused and level-headed, the Vikings look set for another Bowl game appearance this year barring any setbacks.

Dublin Rhinos (1-7 in 2022 Premier Division)
The Rhinos come down to Division 1 after a disappointing season last year. With the relegation battle coming down to a winner-stays-up with the Belfast Knights last July, the Rhinos kept themselves competitive in spurts during 2022, the highlight of which being a shock upset of the Craigavon Cowboys in April. QB Ethan Foster and co. will look to rebound in a division without the likes of the Rebels or UCD to try and prepare for. Rookie WR Jeremy Capt performed well in a preseason friendly with the Belfast Trojans, and could feature more heavily for the Rhinos this year. Coach David Hosford and long-term Rhino Steve O’Rourke will do well to motivate his players coming into a division the Rhinos won back in 2018, and with an itch to get back to the Premier Division the Rhinos will be pushing themselves to being leading player coming towards the 2023 playoffs.