Much has been made of the significant losses on the Southern Miss Golden Eagles defense after the 2014 season led by Rakeem Nunez-Roches' decision to leave for the NFL draft. The defense will have a large group of new starters but was that defense very good in the first place?
Southern Miss' defense ranked #80 or worse in total defense (#104/451.4 ypg), rush defense (#110/216.3 ypg.), pass defense (#81/235.1 ypg.) third down defense (#107/44.4% allowed), first downs allowed (#85/279 allowed), interceptions (#105/7 INT), scoring defense (#109/35.4 ppg.), sacks (#115/14 total sacks), tackles for loss (#84/5.5 per game), and turnovers gained (#99/16 total). When looking at those numbers, it is quite amazing that the Golden Eagles were able to win games over Alcorn State, Appalachian State, and North Texas last fall.
The first thing that is immediately clear for Southern Miss heading into fall camp is the influx of new starters all over the defense. Preseason 1st team All-CUSA selection Michael Smith has the flexibility to play inside or outside and could see more action as a defensive end with the ability to make plays in the backfield as former Kansas defensive tackle Andrew Bolton, former Oklahoma defensive tackle Quincy Russell and former Miami defensive end Naim Mustafaa join the bunch. JUCO transfer Ricky Parks started his career as a tight end at Auburn and at 6-4, 289 pounds, will be a terror inside. That group in addition to Michael Smith, Dylan Bradley, Wil Freeman, Ja’Boree Poole and others make the Golden Eagles one of the best defensive fronts in Conference USA.
The linebacker corps should see an interesting battle at middle linebacker with 2014 starter Brian Anderson battling with Auburn transfer Anthony Swain for the starting job. JUCO transfer Sherrod Ruff is talented and ready to contribute and should easily move into the starting lineup immediately at weakside linebacker. Elijah Parker and Terrick Wright should battle for the other opening with Darian Yancey shooting up the depth chart. The talent level of the linebacker corps is well above the level of last season. This group brings a return to the strong front seven groups from several years ago when Southern Miss was a conference title contender every season.
The secondary for Southern Miss has experienced change and will likely be the weak spot this fall. 2014 starters at cornerback, Cornell Armstrong and Kalan Reed, look to add onto solid seasons last fall while JUCO transfers dot the safety spots. Devonta Foster, D’Nerius Antoine, and Deshadrick Truly are all interesting prospects from the JUCO ranks at safety while Picasso Nelson (10 starts in 2014) and Troy Jeter (2 starts in 2014) will fight for playing time.
The biggest takeaway from the Golden Eagles defense is that it will be much better IF the new players are able to adapt to the program. Several transfers had serious issues at previous programs but if they are able to play their roles and not get into trouble, Southern Miss could easily go from having one of the worst to one of the better defenses in Conference USA.