The sun has set on another Southern Miss Golden Eagles season. A loss to a very talented Washington Huskies squad in the Heart of Dallas bowl was disappointing, but hardly anything to scoff at. Remember, this is a Southern Miss team that won only four games in the two previous seasons combined.
Let's take a look at Southern Miss and how the team fared on offense, defense, and special teams in 2015.
It was evident from the season opener versus Mississippi State that Southern Miss would be much more explosive on offense in 2015. The Golden Eagles scored an impressive 39.9 points per game while accumulating over 500 yards of total offense per game.
The run game was a bit of a worry with the offseason loss of George Payne to injury. In stepped the combination of Jalen Richard and Ito Smith. All they did was combine for 2,226 yards and 24 touchdowns on the season. Michigan transfer Justice Hayes was not quite the impact player many expected from him, but much of that was due to the impressive play of the Richard and Smith duo.
Richard and Hayes will be lost to graduation, but the Golden Eagles will return Smith, Payne, and Delaunte' Thornton. 2015 freshman Patrick Brooks may also get a chance to make the 2016 rushing attack even better than the record setting group of this past season.
The passing game was all about the maturity and much improved play of quarterback Nick Mullens. The junior threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns on the season, both school records. Casey Martin was his normal effective self with 80 catches for 925 yards, but Michael Thomas was the player to watch. Thomas caught 71 passes for 1,391 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season. He worked himself from a fringe NFL prospect to an almost definite draft pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Both Martin and Thomas are lost to graduation, which will hurt significantly. A strong JUCO wide reciever class, along with the return of D.J. Thompson, should help the Golden Eagles to stave off too much of a drop off in the passing game.
While skill players get all the attention, the offensive line deserves significant credit. Rashod Hill, Brandon Farmer, Cameron Tom, and Norman Price made all 13 starts on the year. Devin Farrior and Oliver Bates both saw action at right guard throughout the season. Both tackles (Hill and Price) are lost to graduation, but have backups that are ready to start in 2016.
Injuries really hurt the Southern Miss defense down the stretch, with the Golden Eagles giving up 44.5 points per game versus WKU and Washington. Even with those disappointing performances, the defense was so far ahead of what it has been in recent seasons.
On the defensive line, the acquistion of Andrew Bolton from Kansas was one of the biggest moves from the coaching staff. Bolton was an anchor on the inside, allowing Dylan Bradley to face one-on-one matchups in route to 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. The starting four on the defensive line combined for 26 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. Bolton and Smith are lost to graduation.
Senior middle linebacker Brian Anderson led an improved linebacker corps with 83 tackles, including 13.5 for loss. Elijah Parker made all 14 starts, one as SLB, and finished the season fifth on the team in tackles. His 7.5 tackles for loss ranked third on the team. The combination of Terrick Wright and Auburn transfer Anthony Swain filled out the group with a combined 73 tackles, five for loss. Anderson, Wright, and Swain are lost to graduation, making linebacker a question mark moving forward.
The youngest position group for Southern Miss was also its most improved as the secondary looked much better in 2015. JUCO transfer D'Nerius Antoine led the team in tackles, tied for third in tackles for loss, and led the team with four forced fumbles. Picasso Nelson Jr. (59), Kalan Reed (56), Cornell Armstrong (47), and Devonta Foster (36) all finished in the top nine in tackles on the season.
Reed is the only loss from the defensive backfield, but will be hard to replace after a senior season that included four interceptions and 19 pass break ups.
Special Teams: B+
There were some up and down moments for kicker Stephen Brauchle (11-14 FG, 48-52 XP) and punter Tyler Sarrazin (39.8 average). Sarrazin in particular was a force in the faking punts and field goals department. He rushed for a touchdown, passed for a touchdown, and threw for a first down on fakes this season. The coverage teams only gave up one kick return touchdown, but Richard also took one to the house for Southern Miss. Both Brauchle and Sarrazin return in 2016.
When you go from 3-9 to 9-5 with a trip to the CUSA title game and a bowl berth, it is nothing short of amazing. The Golden Eagles were excellent for most of the season, but did experience a dip late in the season due in part to injuries. A significant portion of this roster returns for 2016, so there is no reason to think Southern Miss will not be in the hunt for a conference title next season.