One of the most controversial moves made early in the tenure of Southern Miss Golden Eagles head coach Jay Hopson was the decision to not retain defensive coordinator David Duggan.
Duggan was a longtime defensive mastermind that spent the 2008-2011 and 2013-2015 seasons with Southern Miss. He was a well liked coach by both players and the fan base. While it is a disappointment to see someone of his caliber leave the program, he landed on his feet in accepting a coaching job on the Western Michigan staff.
With Duggan shown the door, Hopson wasted little time in announcing Tony Peroraro as the new defensive coordinator. Pecoraro had spent the last four seasons with Hopson at Alcorn State in the same role.
Some changes were expected out of a defense that struggled down the stretch versus Western Kentucky in the Conference USA title game and Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The biggest change for the Golden Eagles could be in the form of a move to a 4-2-5 base defense rather than the 4-3 base defense under Duggan.
Before you freak out and wonder why they would make a move like this, it actually makes a lot of sense. It was already being used a significant portion of time with C-USA being full of pass happy teams. Six teams in the conference threw for 3,000 or more yards in 2015.
The 4-2-5 defense is a base nickel defense that has to be on the field much more than in the past. For those that do not understand it, there are four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs in this defense. It is used to combat the passing offenses by putting more athletic players on the field.
In many ways, the Southern Miss roster is set up perfectly to run a 4-2-5 most of the time. Currently, the squad has 17 defensive backs on the rosters. Returning major contributors Cornell Armstrong, Deshadrick Truly, Picasso Nelson Jr., Curtis Mikell, and Devonta Foster make up a very formidable group. With significant depth throughout the secondary, the coaching staff is playing to the strengths of the team.
We haven't even talked about D'Nerius Antoine. Last season's leading tackler is a bit of a linebacker/safety hybrid that can cover and also play in the box versus the run. He is in a position to play a bit of a "Joker" role where he may be a linebacker on one play, a cover safety on another play, and even an edge pass rusher on other plays. Used correctly, he is one of the most versatile and dangerous players in Conference USA.
Losing middle linebacker Brian Anderson and others to graduation is a huge blow, but Elijah Parker and a combination of linebackers and safeties at the other position allow the defense to show multiple looks.
The defensive line does not quite have the depth of previous season, but does return Dylan Bradley and his 12.5 tackles for loss. Along with Naim Mustafaa, Draper Riley , LaDarius Harris, Xavier Thigpen, and Ja'Boree Poole, the defensive line is solid. Depth is a slight issue, but the ability to drop a player like Darian Yancey to a rush defensive end on passing downs from his linebacker position gives even more options to Pecoraro.
Until we see the Golden Eagles in action, it will be hard to fully comprehend just what plans are in store for the defense. It is a defense that can be called a 4-2-5 with Antoine at a "Joker" spot, a straight 4-3, or even a 3-3-5 versus certain pass happy teams.
One thing is certain for Southern Miss, several players will find their way onto the field and we should see some defensive formations that were not possible even a year ago.