UK FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles

Derek Terry, Beat Writer
Cats Illustrated
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky, fresh off its best season under head coach Mark Stoops, starts the 2017 campaign with a revenge game. The Wildcats travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., on Sept. 2 to face Southern Mississippi in their first game of the season. The Golden Eagles scored 34 unanswered points after UK led 34-10 in the first half to come back and beat the Wildcats 44-35 in last season’s opening game.

Southern Mississippi had an up-and-down season after that, starting the season 4-1 before losing five of its next six games. The Golden Eagles rallied at the end and won two straight games, including a win in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl over Louisiana Lafayette, to finish the season 7-6.

Only one loss and two wins were decided by single-digits for Southern Mississippi last season, meaning the Golden Eagles either won easily or were throttled in most games.

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI

Coach: Jay Hopson, 2nd season, 7-6 overall.

2016 record: 7-6, 4-4 Conference USA

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.

Game time: 4 p.m. E.T. (TV: CBSSports Network)

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The biggest question for Southern Miss offensively will be replacing quarterback Nick Mullens. Mullens was a four-year starter and broke many of the school’s career passing records. With him now out of the equation, Southern Miss will rely on sophomore Keon Howard or JUCO transfer Kwadra Griggs.

The rest of the offense, besides possibly the offensive line which only returns two starters, looks explosive. Running backs Ito Smith and George Payne are back for another season under offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Smith and Payne combined to rush for 273 yards against the Wildcats last season. Smith was Southern Miss’ star player last season, running for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he also caught 43 passes for 459 yards and two touchdowns.

At receiver, Allenzae Staggers returns after a terrific junior season. Staggers caught 62 passes on 85 targets and finished the season with 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns. Five other receivers caught over 250 yards though, meaning several receivers are experienced on this roster.

SOUTHERN MISS DEFENSE

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The defense is spearheaded by defensive end Xavier Thigpen. Thigpen, now a senior, had 33 tackles, 12.5 of them for a loss and five sacks during his junior season. Fellow defensive end/outside linebacker Darian Yancey had five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

LaDarrius Harris and Draper Riley will man the interior of the defensive line. Southern Miss also brings back a few backups at those positions.

Sherrod Ruff is the only returning linebacker starter for the Golden Eagles. He recorded 11 tackles for loss, three sacks and forced three fumbles a season ago. The better news for the defense is every cornerback who played a meaningful snap last year is back. Three of the players -- Cornell Armstrong, Curtis Mikell and Trae Collins -- are seniors. Mikell had two interceptions, including one for a touchdown, in a 34-7 win against UTEP.

Coach Jay Hopson and defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro lost three of their top four safeties, but returner Picasso Nelson is one of the best players on the defense. The Golden Eagles signed several players in the secondary, so new players will have a chance to break into the mix at safety.

Follow Cats Illustrated beat writer Derek Terry on Twitter.

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