The top 10 Southern Miss football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
QB Nick Mullens, Sr.
Mullens took flight in 2015 to become one of the top quarterbacks in Conference USA. Following an up-and-down start to his career, he erupted for 38 touchdowns, 4,476 yards and 12 picks on 331-of-521 passing. Mullens is the accurate and poised conductor of the Southern Miss attack, spreading the ball around to his myriad weapons. Now, the slight 6-1, 196-pound triggerman must remain potent without the guidance of head coach Todd Monken.
RB Ito Smith, Jr.
Smith was one of two Golden Eagles to rush for more than 1,000 yards in 2015. Now that Jalen Richard has exhausted his eligibility, what might Smith accomplish with a more expanded role? He was a dynamite threat a year ago, rushing for a team-high 1,128 yards and 10 scores on 171 carries and catching 49 passes for 515 yards and three more touchdowns. Elusive and shifty in the open field, the 5-9, 195-pound Smith is one of the most underrated big-play threats in America.
NT Dylan Bradley, Sr.
Bradley took a big step forward in his evolution as Southern Miss’ fiercest pass rusher, avoiding the injuries that plagued him in 2014. With a full season to operate, he delivered 12.5 tackles for loss, a team-high 6.5 sacks and a bunch of hurries. Bradley is a low leverage 6-1, 265-pounder, with the quick moves to get around the edge and the strength to fight through blockers.
C Cameron Tom, Sr.
Tom is not only one of the premier blockers in Conference USA. He’s also the league’s reigning first team all-league center. The 6-4, 287-pound unsung hero of the offense is about to enter his fourth season as a starter, bringing know-how and consistency to the pivot. Tom is a decent pass blocker, but really excels at opening holes for the Golden Eagle running backs.
WR D.J. Thompson, Sr.
The receiving corps won’t get better after losing Michael Thomas and Casey Martin to graduation. But Thompson is prepared to pick up some of the slack in his final year. He’s coming off his best season in Hattiesburg, ranking third on the team with 55 receptions for 779 yards and six touchdowns. Thompson has can’t-miss size, 6-3 and 200 pounds, but still needs to hone his ball skills to become a true No. 1 in the offense.
S D’Nerius Antoine, Sr.
Antoine was an instant hit in his first year out of Trinity Valley (Tex.) Community College, copping USM Defensive MVP and honorable mention All-Conference USA. Now, the program is flirting with moving the power puncher to linebacker to offset losses on the second level. Out of the secondary, the 6-0, 215-pound Antoine dominated his surroundings by making a team-high 103 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, seven passes defended and four forced fumbles.
NB Picasso Nelson, Jr.
Nelson is one of the more versatile USM defensive backs, able to play multiple positions. Last season, he started at boundary safety, which allowed him to showcase his athleticism. As a 10-game starter, the 5-10, 195-pounder finished third on the squad with 59 tackles, including five for loss and five passes defended. Nelson is an asset in coverage, and he’s unafraid of stepping up in run support.
LB Elijah Parker, Sr.
Parker has been a valuable contributor to the Golden Eagles since transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in 2014. He started all 14 games at weakside last fall, chipping in with 47 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss and three forced fumbles. The 6-2, 220-pound Parker plays with good range, the basis for his success as a blitzer off the edge and a pass defender when dropping back into coverage.
CB Cornell Armstrong, Jr.
Armstrong is quickly developing into one of the cornerstones of the Golden Eagle pass defense, especially now that stalwart Kalan Reed has graduated. After starting five games as a true freshman, he became a full-timer in 2015, making 47 tackles, two picks and 10 pass breakups. At only 5-11 and 180 pounds, Armstrong can struggle against the run, but he flashes promising coverage skills.
DE Darian Yancey, Soph.
The program is bullish on Yancey’s chances of becoming the team’s speed rusher off the edge from ‘Wolf’ this season. The sophomore is only 6-1 and 250 pounds, so he’s not going to be former Eagle Michael Smith versus the run. But Yancey displays a quick first step on the opposite side as Dylan Bradley, debuting last year with 32 tackles, six stops for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pick. Now it’s time to start finishing more plays.