Southern Miss football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Golden Eagles, best players and season prediction.
The architect is now in the NFL. Did he take the blueprint for success with him to Tampa?
Todd Monken lived up to expectations in Hattiesburg, guiding a once-marooned program to nine wins in his third year. And then he abruptly left for the offensive coordinator job with the Buccaneers, bringing Southern Miss’ recent gains to a temporary halt.
Enter Jay Hopson, who’s taking the baton and running with it in his return to the school.
Hopson made perfect sense for the administration. Mississippi native, former Golden Eagle assistant and the winner of the last two SWAC championships as the Alcorn State head coach. He and his new staff will attempt to build on what Monken started in 2013.
Hopson inherits a team that went 9-5 in 2015 and played in the Conference USA title game as the West Division champion. He’s a defensive guy, so the job of keeping the offense humming belongs to coordinator Shannon Dawson. While Dawson will need to develop a few targets and capable pass protectors, his job will be made easier by the returns of QB Nick Mullens and RB Ito Smith, the cornerstones of the league’s premier backfield.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, there’s a little more heavy lifting to be done on defense. The three players who earned first or second-team all-league have graduated, leaving a void that needs to be filled at each level. Southern Miss ought to be fine against the middling opponents on the schedule, much like a season ago. But this unit will be judged by how it plays versus the better competition, such as Kentucky, Marshall, LSU and Louisiana Tech. If Hopson and new coordinator Tony Pecoraro can get their kids to overachieve in those matchups, it’ll be a promising omen for the balance of the slate.
Southern Miss suffered the same fate as so many Group of Five programs throughout the years, losing a successful head coach to a different opportunity. However, there are enough veterans, headlined by Mullens, to be right back in the Conference USA title game on the first Saturday of December. Hopson has steadily climbed the coaching ladder, with this latest rung leading him back to a familiar campus. The table is set for the new leadership to pick up where the old coaching staff led off, provided it can plug a few key holes in the summer.
What You Need to Know About the Southern Miss Offense
New staff. Same expectations. The Eagles more than doubled their scoring output from the previous year in 2015, ringing up 40 points per game. But the architects of the attack, head coach Todd Monken and coordinator Chip Lindsey, are in Tampa and Tempe, respectively.
Still, USM believes there’s enough returning talent, beginning with all-league QB Nick Mullens, to remain among the most potent attacks in Conference USA. Joining Mullens to form the program’s triplets will be WR D.J. Thompson and RB Ito Smith, who could be ready to go national.
Beyond adapting to new coordinator Shannon Dawson, the key to remaining on track will be to develop more targets for Mullens and inserting a pair of new starting tackles into the lineup. Fingers are crossed that the franchise will be properly supported, both in terms of protection and reliable hands.
Fortunately, the receivers have stood out this offseason, including junior Isaiah Jones, whose career began in Tallahassee as a Seminole.
Biggest Key To The Offense
Dawn of a new era at wide receiver. So who catches Nick Mullens’ accurate darts this fall? Sure, D.J. Thompson is back, but last year’s top two pass-catchers, Michael Thomas and Casey Martin, are not. Fortunately, for an offense that hopes to be every bit as potent as in 2015, Isaiah Jones, Marquise Ricard and Korey Robertson are coming off solid springs. Jones is a talented 6-4, 195-pounder who began his career at Florida State before transferring to East Mississippi Community College.
What You Need to Know About the Southern Miss Defense
In 2015, there were two Southern Miss defenses. In wins, the Eagles allowed just 18 points per game, but it yielded 38 points in five losses. Essentially, versus better competition USM folded.
The new staff, led by defensive-minded head coach Jay Hopson and coordinator Tony Pecoraro, will be looking for more consistency in 2016. It’ll make that approach without three of last season’s top players, DE Michael Smith, LB Brian Anderson and CB Kalan Reed, a Tennessee Titan draft pick.
The cornerstones of this year’s D will be the Dylan Bradley-led defensive line and an underrated secondary littered with veterans. It’s on the second level where the Eagles could be particularly vulnerable now that Anderson has exhausted his eligibility.
The team is hopeful that Rover D’Nerius Antoine can step up his game Year 2 to support the likes of C.J. Perry in the middle and Elijah Parker at strongside.
Biggest Key To The Defense
Bradley moving inside. The Eagles’ best defensive player, senior lineman Dylan Bradley, won’t be a headache for opposing tackles this fall, because he’s moving inside to the nose. While Bradley is just 6-1 and 265 pounds, the new staff in Hattiesburg feels that his quickness off the snap will cause even bigger issues for lumbering centers and guards on the other side of the ball. Plus, the move creates an opening for Darian Yancey and Xavier Thigpen on the outside.
Southern Miss Will Be Far Better If …
the defense shows up against the better teams on the schedule. The Eagles were just fine versus mediocrity a year ago, beefing up their numbers against the likes of Charlotte and Austin Peay. But they were exposed for well over 500 yards against Mississippi State, Texas State, Nebraska, Western Kentucky and Washington, four of which were losses. If USM is going to take another step forward, the D will have to show up in games with Kentucky, LSU and Louisiana Tech.
Best Offensive Player
Senior QB Nick Mullens. At this time last year, Mullens was busy trying to fend off TCU transfer Tyler Matthews. Today, he’s one of the top passers in the Group of Five. New head coach compares Mullens to former Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington, since both players have high football IQs and will find a way to beat a defense. Mullens does not have great measurables, but he’s a gamer, and his accurate throws help raise the level of his teammates in the huddle.
Best Defensive Player
Senior NT Dylan Bradley. Back from injury in 2015, Bradley was able to show what he can do for the Golden Eagle defense. He’s a disruptor, with a quick first step and a great motor. And he has a penchant for playing much bigger than his size. This fall, the Golden Eagles plan to use their most valuable defender on the interior, where they feel he’ll be even more likely to blow up opposing backfields.
Key Players to a Successful Season
The new offensive tackles. As the offense goes, so goes Southern Miss in 2016. That’s not to suggest that D won’t have a role or plenty of talent. But the Eagles must give star QB Nick Mullens time to operate, a directive that became harder after tackles Rashod Hill and Norman Price graduated. Southern Miss is suddenly very inexperienced on the flanks, with Jacob Fleming and converted NT Wil Freeman battling at left tackle, and rookie Ty Pollard holding the edge on the right side.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Golden Eagles take the next step and win the Conference USA title. Yup, even with a new staff. Southern Miss is still as good as any team in the West Division, including La Tech, who it thrashed last year. Jay Hopson inherits a terrific backfield and enough returning talent on both sides of the ball to navigate a schedule that features two trips into SEC country, Kentucky and LSU, but is otherwise littered with a spate of softies. Duplicating last year’s nine wins is eminently possible for this group.
Nov. 25 vs. Louisiana Tech. It’s very possible that the outcome of this game in Hattiesburg will decide who captures the West and plays for a league crown a week later. The Eagles pummeled the Bulldogs a year ago in Ruston, 58-24, so there’ll be ample motivation from the visitors. However, if Southern Miss plans to return to the Conference USA title game—and win it this time—this might be a game it must secure as the regular season comes to a close.
2015 Fun Stats
– Scoring: Southern Miss 39.9 – Opponents 25.6
– Yards per play: Southern Miss 6.9 – Opponents 5.3
– Third-down%: Southern Miss 46% – Opponents 37%