Previewing Southern Miss’ Offense for 2016
By pretty much any measure, 2015 was the most prolific offensive season in Southern Miss history. The Golden Eagles set school records for yards and points per game, as well as yards per play. Junior Nick Mullens attempted more passes for more yards, more touchdowns and a higher efficiency rating than any USM quarterback before him. Two different backs (Jalen Richard and Ito Smith) eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground, another first. There were single-season marks set for receptions (Casey Martin, 80) and receiving yards (Mike Thomas, 1,391), and Thomas added the record for receiving TDs (14).
That’s a tough act to follow, particularly after the architects of the breakthrough, head coach Todd Monken and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, both left for greener pastures. Thomas, Martin, and Richard all graduated, along with both starting tackles. But the 2016 offense is hardly starting from scratch: Mullens will be back to complete his assault on the school record book as a senior. Smith will take on the lion’s share of the ground game as a junior, running behind a long-in-the-tooth interior line led by All-C-USA center Cameron Tom. Senior D.J. Thompson has the look of the next big thing at receiver, unless he’s supplanted by sophomore Korey Robertson or junior college transfer Isaiah Jones.
Some regression under the new coaching staff may be inevitable. But the scheme under new coordinator Shannon Dawson will remain largely the same — Dawson, like Monken, is steeped in the Air Raid philosophy.
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Previewing Southern Miss’ Defense for 2016
The offense was so good that it tended to overshadow the equally dramatic improvement on defense. Southern Miss led C-USA in yards allowed in conference games and ranked second in points allowed. Many of the headliners from that unit are back, including the leading tackler, senior D’Nerius Antoine, who experimented at linebacker in the spring after a stellar turn in 2015 at free safety; the top pass rusher, senior Dylan Bradley; and a pair of veteran stalwarts in the secondary, juniors Cornell Armstrong and Picasso Nelson Jr., who combined for 38 starts in their first two years on campus.
Southern Miss lost both of last year’s starting defensive tackles, Michael Smith and Andrew Bolton, as well as middle linebacker Brian Anderson, who led the team with 13.5 tackles for a loss. The Eagles held eight of nine C-USA opponents below their season average for rushing yards, a streak the new bodies in the middle (Draper Riley and LaDarius Harris on the line, Jeremy Sangster at linebacker) will be hard-pressed to repeat.
Previewing Southern Miss’ Specialists for 2016
The kicking game was an adventure, beginning with placekicker Stephen Brauchle, who missed four PATs and his only field goal attempt beyond 40 yards. The punt team didn’t fare much better: Tyler Sarrazin forced just one fair catch on 45 attempts and posted a net average of just 34.5 yards.
The Eagles will also be in the market for a new punt returner to replace Richard and Martin, neither of whom brought much juice to the role.
Last year’s run to the C-USA Championship Game felt like a return to normal after the Eagles lost 33 of 36 games over the previous three seasons. Monken’s successor, Jay Hopson, doesn’t offer much in the way of name recognition, but he has much closer ties to the school and the state, having played at Ole Miss, served two separate stints as a Southern Miss assistant, and most recently resuscitated the fortunes of Alcorn State.
He inherits Conference USA’s most accomplished quarterback and arguably its most talented roster, top to bottom. Aside from a midseason trip to LSU, every game on the schedule is winnable, including an Week 1 test at Kentucky.