While Nick Mullens and Ito Smith deservedly get their fair share of accolades from everyone, a player that did not play a single snap in 2015 due to injury will determine just how good the Southern Miss Golden Eagles can be.
George Payne, a native of Mobile, Alabama, was lightly recruited out of high school. He only held offers from the Citadel and Samford according to Rivals. Despite no other offers at the FBS level, former head coach Todd Monken offered Payne a chance to play for the Golden Eagles.
From the very beginning, Payne showed signed or promise, rushing for 173 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman. During his sophomore campaign, he upped his totals to 271 yards on the ground and 109 yards in the air. Monken and company were expecting him to be part of a three headed running back monster along with Jalen Richard and Ito Smith.
Alas, it did not materialize as Payne suffered a season ending injury before the season began. Michigan graduate transfer Justice Hayes attempted to fill the slot of Payne, but could not find his stride in 2015.
Just how important were running backs for Southern Miss last season?
Without being hyperbolic, they were everything. The running back positions included two 1,000+ yard rushers, two receivers with 30+ catches, and 29 total touchdowns. Their play turned a 3-9 team into one the Conference USA west division champions and a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The 2015 season is in the past with Richard, Hayes, and even Monken gone. The only returning running back with any real experience is the explosive Smith. What Payne brings to the table is an ability to get the tough yards in the middle while allowing Smith to break the long runs. Payne is not afraid to do the dirty work to help the team.
Just look at how ridiculously explosive the Golden Eagles running game was in 2015 without Payne.
The former two-star recruit also brings an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, an important part of the Southern Miss offense last fall. Smith and Richard combined to make 79 catches for 799 yards and five touchdowns last fall. Payne should be able to slip into the slot vacated by Richard and keep Southern Miss from losing a step.
The fact that running backs make so many catches out of the backfield will make the loss of wide receiving star Mike Thomas a bit easier to handle. Payne gives newly minted offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson an ability to stretch the field from sideline to sideline in his offense.
Since Payne's knee injury took place in June, there is a good chance that we will not see much of the power back in spring practice. The coaching staff will look to take it easy and likely keep Payne off the field. They cannot afford him to reaggrevate the knee injury again before the season even starts.
The 2015 season as a whole should be interesting in the Southern Miss backfield as former walk-on Delaunte' Thornton stepped up as a redshirt freshman last fall, finishing the season fourth on the team in rushing. Tez Parks, Patrick Brooks, and incoming freshman Andre Hale II should all be in the running to fight for playing time.