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Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles Season Preview: Expect more in 2016

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Can Jay Hopson deliver in his first season in Hattiesburg?

NCAA Football: Old Dominion at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

A popular discussion in the South has been the change of football coaches at the University of Southern Mississippi. Todd Monken had taken USM from the dregs of 0-12 to a nine-win season in 2015. Then, he left for the NFL.

Seeming to be undaunted, Athletic Director Bill McGillis already had USM’s next head football coach in his sights and in the course of just one week, he hired Jay Hopson, a former USM assistant.

But wait! How could he be so sure?

When Hopson left Southern Miss for Alcorn State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, he immediately doubled the Braves two wins from the year before. Then, he won 24 of his next 27 games and claimed two consecutive conference championships. Even so, none of those was his best personal highlight. The best came on Saturday, September 6, 2014 when his Alcorn State team lit the national wires with an upset alert against an FBS team. Hopson’s team lost that game 26-20 but won the day in terms of being noticed. The FBS team he almost beat? Southern Mississippi.

So yes USM faithful, your team is in the excellent care of a man with a reputation for winning and a style for coaching football with passion and, even more, investing himself in the lives of his young players.

In addition to his history of success, Hopson inherits a great deal of returning talent at Southern Miss. Add an easier schedule to the mix and the Golden Eagles are perched once again to post nine wins or more.

OFFENSE:

In 2015, Southern Miss scored nearly 40 points per game and ran up 7000 yards to rank 12th nationally in total offense and did it by averaging 6.9 yards per play and over 500 yards per game.

The base for that kind of production came from quarterback Nick Mullens who returns for his senior season. The fact that he has already been named to the watch lists of the Maxwell Award, the Davey O’Brien Award, and the Walter Camp Award represents expert confidence that his eye-popping performances will only get better. And that is saying something because Mullens threw for 4476 yards with 38 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Folks, when whittled down to a per-game basis, all of those numbers exceed Southern Mississippi’s most notorious gunslinger, Brett Favre. In fact, all of those per-game numbers for all of Mullens’ seasons exceed those of the Golden Eagles’ golden boy.

Last season, Mullens posted a crazy-good third-and-long quarterback rating of 193.4 with an average yards-per-attempt of 7.9. With numbers like those, Mullens has become the top PFF-rated returning quarterback in the 2016 season.

Of course, no passing attack can thrive without a decent running game and the Golden Eagles have plenty of that.

Running back Ito Smith is a 5'9, 195 pound torpedo who averaged 9.3 yards per carry last year. Yes—that’s right: NINE-point-three. And that’s not a statistic distorted by only carrying the ball a few times. No sir. Mr. Smith averaged 9.3 yards per carry on 171 attempts! And, he did all of that while splitting time with another 1000 yard back, Jalen Richard who has since graduated. Eleven-hundred yards splitting time with a senior running back. Can you see why the running game has fans excited?

Of course you also can’t have an outstanding passing attack without some go-to receivers.

The Golden Eagles lost two leading receivers but two emerging stars are already on board. D.J. Thompson and Marquise Ricard combined for 85 receptions and nearly 1,200 yards last year as secondary targets. The addition of 6’4” Florida State transfer Isaiah Jones should bolster the receiving core even more.

Add another 49 receptions and 515 yards for Smith out of the backfield and the question becomes how Mullens' will keep all of them fed.

Of course, you can neither pass nor run the football well without a capable offensive line. The Golden Eagles return all of their interior linemen anchored by Remington Watch List and three-year All Conference USA center Cameron Tom along with starting guards Oliver Bates and Devin Farrior. Both starting tackles graduated and will be replaced by 6'6”, 315 pound Ty Pollard who was in the rotation last year and has already nailed down the right tackle spot.

To find a starter for the critical left tackle position, Hopson brought Will Freeman over from the defensive line. Freeman has added 20 pounds but at 295 pounds and is likely to add more.

Southern Miss’ offensive line will be better this year and should perform well against a majority of their opponents.

No offense will be at its best without a capable offensive coordinator and for that, Coach Hopson turned to Shannon Dawson whose resume’ includes years of successful coordinator work in West Virginia’s high-octane scheme.

Dawson plans on retaining USM's balanced spread attack while adding innovations from his beloved Air Raid.

In addition to a successful OC history, there is another advantage that goes with hiring Dawson as his last gig was at Kentucky, the very first opponent USM will face this season. If anyone knows the weak spots of the UK defense, it should be Dawson.

Because Southern Mississippi has very few holes to fill offensively and because the talent is already present, there is every reason to believe that the Golden Eagles will exceed the 39.9 ppg production of last season.

DEFENSE

It is good news that nearly all of USM's defensive line and secondary return. It has been less settling that the linebacking corps graduated some stars and has been considered questionable.

But, sleep well Hattiesburg because new defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro, who accompanied Hopson from Alcorn State, has two solutions:

1) Coach the linebackers himself, and …

2) Attack, attack, attack! Attack from every place and every angle. Just --- gosh dang it --- attack!

Yes, Southern Miss attacked defensively last year but—oh my—you haven’t seen nuthin’ yet. If Pecoraro’s schemes at ASU are any evidence, then Golden Eagle fans and opponents are about to see what real pressure looks like.

That is good news for defensive linemen Xavier Thigpen and Dylan Bradley who combined for 11 sacks a year ago. Coaches are expecting Jerry McCorvey to come off of a redshirt year to add even more pressure. The Golden Eagles also added Big 12 transfer Andrew Bolton who is certain to find playing time with his 310 pound frame and the need for USM to be just a bit bigger up front.

The secondary will be even better this year because Picasso Nelson (nickel), Cornell Armstrong, Trae Collins, and all conference hybrid safety/lb De'Narius Antoine return. Antoine is 215 pounds of no-nonsense aggression, athleticism, and instinct along with a 2015 ledger that shows 103 tackles with 75 of those being solo.

And there is plenty of depth in the secondary with Curtis Mikell and Louisville graduate transfer cornerback Devontre Parnell. The lightning quick Parnell has faced injury problems the past two seasons but was 100% healthy through spring drills at Louisville and is thought to have lock-down potential.

Those questions at linebacker? Lets see if they are all that bad.

Darian Clancey was named to the all conference freshman team as a defensive end and will switch this season to a rover-like position that USM calls the Wolf. Elijah Parker will become a four-year starter when he opens the season at strong side linebacker. Last season, Parker registered 47 tackles with 7.5 sacks while also forcing three fumbles. C.J. Perry is expected to fill the middle although he played sparingly in 2015.

Before he departed, coach Monken recruited a bushel of three-star linebackers so there is plenty of depth. Put it all together and the linebacking corps that once worried so many might prove to be the best unit of them all.

Southern Mississippi returns most of its defense, has a great number of impressive transfers, and plenty of recruits to step in. Last season, the Golden Eagles finished about 50th in overall defense but with a strong roster and a weaker schedule, this unit could finish somewhere near 35th.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Here is where Jay Hopson earns his money.

Southern Mississippi was purely awful when it came to kicking the ball and not much better when it came to returning it.

Coach Hopson knows special teams very well going all of the way back to his playing days as a four-year safety and special teams player at Mississippi State.

Senior Stephen Brauchie has won the placekicking job (including kickoffs) while Tyler Sarrazin returns as the punter. Same as last year. Don’t expect much. But, Coach Hopson has shown little concern and it’s important to keep in mind that terrible special teams didn’t keep USM from achieving nine wins last year.

SCHEDULE

Week 1: Kentucky

Wildcats are shaky at the front of their defense and they recently learned that leading tackler Regie Meant has left the team for personal reasons. Linebackers are not strong. Those are exactly the wrong problems to have one week before facing Mullens.

Southern Miss 36 Kentucky 27

Week 2: Savannah St.

Will Savannah ever recover? This is the toughest re-build in America and it will show on this game day.

Southern Miss 63 Savannah St. 7

Week 3: Troy

Troy was easy to predict last season and while the program is getting better, it does not yet have enough to stop the versatility of USM's offense.

Southern Miss 48 Troy 21

Week 4: UTEP

The Miners have some talent but didn’t rise above 83rd in 2015 rankings. Golden Eagles need to come prepared because this is not a lock. Had UTEP won its close games, it would have been a bowl team last year. Can’t say it enough: this is a risky opponent for anyone.

Southern Miss 38 UTEP 28

Week 5: Rice

Owls can’t snark Eagles. Wasn’t close last season. Won’t be close in 2016 either.

Southern Miss 55 Rice 14

Week 6: UTSA

The Roadrunners have some daylight ahead of them and a bright future with changes that have been made in the UTSA organization. Nonetheless, those won’t bear fruit enough to stop the Golden Eagles.

Southern Miss 44 UTSA 17

Week 7: LSU

Recent Southern Miss teams haven’t come close to the P5 elites. Even with improvement, this is not the year for an upset of a team like LSU. Too much Tiger power and size.

That is---unless . . . Unless LSU has not yet shown a passing attack and Miles has once again not solved opponents overloading against Fournette. If that’s LSU's situation in October, then it plays extremely well for a Southern Miss upset.

LSU 37 Southern Miss 21

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: Marshall

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a Marshall cheerleader and have to spell out Thundering Herd. “Gimme a ‘T’; gimme an ‘h’; gimme a—-aw forget it!”. This will be two USM losses in a row, but the sky isn’t falling. Marshall is still just a little too far ahead.

Marshall 35 Southern Miss 24

Week 10: Charlotte

Happy days are here again, at least if you’re wearing gold and black. Charlotte has done a good job after entering FBS, but this game is all Mullens until he is pulled for the sake of mercy.

Southern Miss 49 Charlotte 7

Week 11: Old Dominion

The good news is that ODU finished 2015 in a somewhat respectable top-70 ranking for passing yards defended. The bad news is that no one needed to pass because ODU finished 101st for defending the run. Against USM, both will be problematic because the Golden Eagles excel in both.

Southern Miss 55 Old Dominion 14

Week 12: North Texas

North Texas now has the one thing it’s needed most: hope. This program will rebound and, in fact, should play well against USM. But, the difference in talent is just too great to blindside a team like USM with its eyes squarely on the conference title.

Southern Miss 41 North Texas 10

Week 13: Louisiana Tech

This game is a homer for Southern Miss. USM won handily last year. By the time this game is played, Hopson’s style and schemes should be solid. Have to hand this one to USM.

Southern Miss 47 Louisiana Tech 34

PROJECTED FINISH: 10 – 2, 6 - 1