The Southern Miss Golden Eagles joined the ranks of college football programs gearing up spring practice with a three-hour helmets only practice on Tuesday.
The Golden Eagles, under the tutelage of former Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson, are looking to secure their place at the head of the Conference USA west division table after a stunning run to the division title last fall.
Since that surprise run to the CUSA title game last fall, Southern Miss has lost the majority of its coaching staff, several defensive stars that included middle linebacker and cornerback, the team's top two receivers, a 1,000 yard rusher, and the backup quarterback. Finding replacements at all of those positions sounds much scarier than the actual process.
The day one practice included the implementation of new concepts on both sides of the ball. As Hopson stated earlier in the spring, they do not expect to change all that much from an offense that ranked among the best in CUSA last fall.
Many of the changes will come on the defensive side of the ball as Hopson and company look to be more aggressive with the goal of forcing more turnovers and overall explosive plays from that side of the ball.
The biggest change to look at going into the contact practices is the placement of D'Nerius Antoine (103 tkl). The former JUCO transfer was among the best safeties in the conference last fall, but has a history of playing linebacker as well. He is listed as a linebacker for this spring, same as he was last spring, but Antoine gives the defensive coaches extra flexibility in being able to play both positions.
Where he lands, safety or linebacker, will depend on how well the youth at linebacker progresses this spring. Antoine will earn a starting spot somewhere on the defense and most likely be one of the team's top performers.
Finding out just how ready Korey Robertson (14/200/3TD) is to taking over a receiver position is also key. The rising sophomore showed signs of excellence last fall as a backup to star receiver Mike Thomas. He has the physical tools to step in and produce at a very high level. If he is not ready, the Golden Eagles have a significant number of young receivers ready to earn playing time.
D.J. Thompson (55/779/6TD) will be on the other side and is primed for stardom in 2016. He could easily put up 80 catches this fall.
I have previously mentioned the need to replace both tackles in a previous article. Rashod Hill and Norman Price are gone and someone must step up into those roles. Expect the coaching staff to give nearly every tackle prospect a chance to earn a starting spot at either position. They seem to be the most wide open of any position battles.
Outside of where Antoine lands on the defense, the biggest goals of spring practice are finding replacements for Kalan Reed at cornerback, Brian Anderson at MLB, and both defensive tackle spots. The defensive tackle spots have the most competition for starting spots. It is almost impossible to handicap those battles until we get into padded practices.
If Antoine ends up staying at linebacker, we would most likely play the weakside linebacker role that can utilize his speed and ability to cover in the pass game. He, Elijah Parker (47 tkl), and a possibly Jeremy Sangster (5 tkl) in the middle would give the linebacker corps a great trio.
Outside of losing snapper Lance Schuffert, the special teams look to be in pretty good shape. Kicker Stephen Brauchle has his struggles last fall, but seemed to get into a groove as the season progressed. The former Ragin' Cajun should be much improved, along with punter Tyler Sarrazin. Both will be senior starters in 2016.
Expect competition for all positions, even ones that would seem to be already sewn up, to be the major stressing point of Hopson and company this spring.
Spring Practice Schedule:
March: 24, 26, 29, 31.
April: 2 (Scrimmage), 5, 7, 9 (Scrimmage), 12, 14, 16 (Scrimmage), 19, 21.
April 23: Black and Gold Scrimmage