The Golden Eagles rank No. 92 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2018
For years Southern Miss was a beacon of stability. But most of the past decade has been defined by volatility, and despite winning records in each of coach Jay Hopson's first two seasons, it's been hard to predict which team will show up on a given Saturday. With good health, consistency at quarterback and a few breaks, every game on the schedule is winnable outside of a non-conference trip to Auburn. Yet that's been the case the past two years, too, and both of those teams wound up third in C-USA's West Division.
Previewing Southern Miss Football's Offense for 2018
Southern Miss never settled on a QB in 2017, alternating between Kwadra Griggs (5-2 as a starter) and Keon Howard (3-3) depending largely on which guy was healthier from one week to the next. That uncertainty continued into the spring, when Howard split first-team reps with a junior college transfer, Jack Abraham, while Griggs rehabbed an injury. The slight edge heading into the fall probably goes to Griggs, who finished with 19 total TDs and just two interceptions in his first season in the lineup. But Abraham will have every opportunity to supplant the holdovers, as will redshirt freshman Marcelo Rodriguez and incoming signee Tate Whatley. Howard decided to leave the team in early July.
The rest of the offense is even more of a blank slate: At the skill positions alone, the exodus includes the second-leading rusher in school history (Ito Smith) and all three starters at wide receiver. In the backfield, at least, there's experience -- seniors Tez Parks, George Payne and T'Rod Daniels boast over 2,000 career yards from scrimmage among them. Still, most of that production belongs to Payne, a sixth-year player who's sat out two of the past three seasons with injuries, and the new receiving corps consists almost entirely of sophomores.
The line is more predictable, thanks to the return of starters Ty Pollard, Arvin Fletcher and Drake Dorbeck.
Previewing Southern Miss Football's Defense for 2018
USM is also replacing most of last year's personnel on defense, beginning with outgoing coordinator Tony Pecoraro, who left for the same position at C-USA rival Florida Atlantic just before the start of spring practice. Pecoraro's successor is Tim Billings, promoted from safeties coach. His first order of business is rebuilding the secondary: All five of last year's regulars graduated, leaving only two players -- sophomore Rachaun Mitchell and senior Picasso Nelson Jr. -- who have seen any relevant playing time. Nelson, a three-year starter who took a medical redshirt in 2017, returned to full speed in the spring and looks like a lock to resume his old nickel role.
The outlook is better along the front seven, especially at defensive end, where senior bookends LaDarius Harris and Darian Yancey have combined for 41 career starts, and linebacker, where Racheem Boothe earned Freshman All-America notices as a redshirt.
Previewing Southern Miss Football's Specialists for 2018
Senior Parker Shaunfield has one of the biggest legs in the league, connecting on all four of his field goal attempts beyond 40 yards last year en route to a first-team All-C-USA nod. Punting duties will fall again to Zac Everett, who averaged 40.6 yards with just four touchbacks in 64 attempts.
The influx of new starters and ongoing uncertainty behind center make the 2018 forecast even hazier. Settling on a reliable week-in, week-out starter will be the top priority; if Griggs, Abraham, or one of the younger players emerges as that guy, filling the vacancies around him should be par for the course. If not, the absence of an all-purpose workhorse on the level of Smith will likely loom very large.