Southern Miss is one of the most consistent programs in the nation. The Golden Eagles are one of just four schools to have had at least 18 consecutive winning seasons (Florida, Florida State and Virginia Tech are the others), and they have been to a bowl in 14 of the past 15 seasons.
But a new day dawns with the arrival of a new coach. Ellis Johnson replaces Larry Fedora, who went to North Carolina. With the new staff comes a slight change of direction: Fedora is an offense-first guy and Johnson has been one of the nation's most respected defensive coordinators.
Johnson's first team has a few holes, most notably at quarterback and linebacker. But Conference USA is down this season, so it's not a bad time to have some question marks.
Don't expect Southern Miss' streak of winning seasons to end, and another bowl bid beckons as well.
Last season: 12-2 overall, 6-2 in Conference USA (1st in C-USA East; won C-USA championship game)
Coach: Ellis Johnson (1st season at Southern Miss; 17-28, 5th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – G Darius Barnes, G Joe Duhon, WR Tracy Lampley, C Austin Quattrochi, WR Dominique Sullivan, T Jason Weaver. Defense (5)–LB/E Jamie Collins, FS Jacorious Cotton, S Jerrion Johnson, T Khyri Thornton, CB Deron Wilson. Special teams (1)–P Peter Boehme.
Fast fact: Southern Miss set a school record for wins last season. And the Golden Eagles' two losses came by a total of nine points.
Four-year starting QB Austin Davis is gone, leaving a giant void: The three guys battling this spring to replace him had seen a combined 15 plays of college action.
All of those plays belonged to Arsenio Favor, who was injured during spring drills. Junior Chris Campbell, a big guy (6 feet 4, 215 pounds) with a nice arm, emerged from spring practice atop the depth chart, but he will have to hold off Favor, Ricky Lloyd and touted freshman Anthony Alford in summer camp to keep the job.
Two positives for the new quarterback are that Southern Miss is deep at tailback and also should have the best offensive line in Conference USA.
Leading returning rusher Jamal Woodyard tore his ACL in the Hawaii Bowl victory over Nevada and was expected to miss the season. Then he was arrested in May on felony robbery charges and may not return. No matter. Three solid tailbacks remain: Kendrick Hardy (426 yards last season), Desmond Johnson (424) and Jeremy Hester (291). In addition, WR Tracy Lampley is dangerous on sweeps and ran for 463 yards last season.
All four returning linemen have a shot at all-league honors: T Jason Weaver, Gs Darius Barnes and Joe Duhon and C Austin Quattrochi.
Southern Miss lost its leading two receivers, but talent remains with Lampley, Quentin Pierce and Dominique Sullivan. Lampley is the only player in school history to score a touchdown four ways (reception, rush, kick return, punt return). Southern Miss won't throw the ball as often as it did last season, but it won't be because of the receivers.
Southern Miss' defense calls itself the "Nasty Bunch," and there are a couple of defenders opposing offenses want to shy away from, most notably E Jamie Collins and CB Deron Wilson.
Johnson likes to play an aggressive style of defense, and he has the athletes on this side of the ball to do just that.
Collins (6-4, 239) was a high school quarterback but was recruited as a defender and has grown into an end. He plays the hybrid "bandit" position (end/outside linebacker) and is a good bet to increase his sack total from last season's 6.5.
Wilson, a junior, has started all 27 games in his career. He's a big hitter and tough in run support, and has seven interceptions and 25 pass breakups.
There should be a nice four-man rotation at tackle, and the secondary should be one of the best in the league. FS Jacorius Cotton and S Jerrion Johnson should provide ample support for Wilson. Southern Miss returned eight interceptions for touchdowns last season, the most in the nation.
The trouble spot on defense is linebacker. Junior Alan Howze is the most experienced player at the position and he made 22 tackles last season. Who will start next to him is the question; the leading contenders are two redshirt freshman and a JC transfer, Dylan Reda, who seems likely to get the nod. Jerrion Johnson plays near the line of scrimmage on running downs and often serves as a third linebacker, but this position still bears watching.
P Peter Boehme will be a four-year starter and is coming off the best season (43.0-yard average) of his career; a bit more than a third of his attempts (16 of 46) came down inside the 20.
Lampley is a dangerous return man, and the athletic Golden Eagles generally have good coverage units. But kicker could be a problem. Danny Hrapmann is gone and sophomore Corey Acosta is the likely replacement; Acosta did make two field goals last season, including a 42-yarder.
It's a brutal opening month for the Golden Eagles, who open at Nebraska, play host to Big East favorite Louisville on Sept. 29 then play host to Boise State on Oct. 6. And the first two league games are against East Carolina and UCF, the teams Southern Miss is going to have to beat to repeat as C-USA East champions.
Other than a Nov. 10 trip to SMU, though, the second half of the schedule looks to be a breeze. Still, this is not the schedule of a team that expects to win a division title.
Fedora left for North Carolina after last season, and Johnson comes aboard from South Carolina, where he had been defensive coordinator. Johnson has worked at Southern Miss before and also at Mississippi State, so he knows the state. He has two former head coaches as his coordinators, Rickey Bustle on offense and Tommy West on defense.
Johnson takes over a team that definitely is in the upper third of the league in terms of total talent. But questions at quarterback and linebacker, along with the schedule, mean a second consecutive season with double-digit victories is out of reach. Still, Southern Miss should win seven or eight and get to a bowl. And in their game against big-name opponents, the Golden Eagles will acquit themselves well.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 60th nationally
The buzz: Southern Miss survived a coaching transition and managed to sign 26 prospects in 2012. The top prospect is dual-threat QB Anthony Alford, from Petal (Miss.) High. Alford was the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the nation and No. 157 prospect overall. Alford has signed with baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, but still will play football at Southern Miss. Other top players in the class include WR Keithon Redding and LB Lelland Ducksworth. – Chris Nee, Rivals.com
LB Dylan Reda. Reda is poised for a breakout season after moving in from junior college. He endured a fierce competition this spring with Terrick Wright to earn a starting linebacker position in Ellis Johnson's signature 4-2-5 hybrid defense. Reda (6-3/235) has the needed size and strength, and moves well laterally. He also showed the ability to be a big-time run-stopper in the spring. – Lanny Mixon, biggoldnation.com
For more on Southern Miss throughout the season, check out biggoldnation.com
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