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2018 Previews: Southern Miss

When Jack Abraham transfered to USM he was in competition with two other former Golden Eagle starters that brought a lot of production to the table. Now, just a couple of weeks away from the 2018 season opener, he is the starter.

His journey included some doubt from the 2013 UNC coaching staff — that was led by former USM head man Larry Fedora. After a series of misfortune, he has found a little luck Keon Howard leaving and Kwadra Griggs being suspended.

Since Nick Mullens graduated, Southern Miss has been looking for a consistent replacement. Even during Mullen’s final year, when he went down, the Golden Eagles looked like a different team. That is unsurprising at this level. Quarterback is the most important position, and it is not surprising that the best teams in this league are the ones with returning quarterbacks, or ones that have loads of talent.

Entering last season, Jay Hopson thought he had a nice situation with Howard and Griggs challenging. When Howard still fumbled the ball easily, Griggs stepped in and showed his quality. Unfortunately, Griggs struggled to complete passes down the field with the kind of consistency required in the modern era. Against North Texas’s shaky secondary, Griggs struggled to complete passes, managing only 45% and 6.4 yards per attempt.

Howard returned to the lineup and delivered against UTSA, throwing for three scores and completing 75% of his passes as USM throttled UTSA early before allowing the Roadrunners to get back into things.

All told it was not surprising to see Jay Hopson bring in some competition. Jack Abraham is lauded for his accuracy but lacks size and the athleticism that Howard and Griggs possessed. Hopson has repeatedly mentioned the depth at running back — even sounding a bit terse when asked about replacing Ito Smith — and that should take the load off of Abraham.

Still, this squad lost two NFL-calibre wide receivers who bailed out their quarterbacks often. Three-fifths of the line return, and TE Jay’Shawn Washington does also, but there will be plenty of new faces.

Defensively, seemingly the entire secondary is gone — including stadeouts Cornell Armstrong, Curtis Mikell, Tarvarius Moore, and Jomez Applewhite. In a league with so many offensive threats, it is a big concern.

Last year’s defense did plenty to keep the team in the game when the still-explosive offense turned the ball over or got stuck in a rut. That dynamic will not continue this season, despite the number of JUCO reinforcements brought in. Hopson is a good coach but he is working with a rebuilding squad.

Schedule

Date Opponent TV
9/1 Jackson State ESPN+
9/8 Louisiana-Monroe ESPN3
9/15 @ Appalachian State ESPN+
9/22 Rice * ESPN+
9/29 @ Auburn TBA
10/13 @ UNT * ESPN3
10/20 UTSA * ESPN+
10/27 @ Charlotte * ESPN3
10/3 Marshall * Stadium / Facebook
10/10 @ UAB BeIN
10/17 Louisiana Tech Stadium
10/24 @ UTEP ESPN+

Offense

Jack Abraham will get the nod, and he will have three weeks to settle in as a starter before league play begins. Jackson State on September 1st should not bring too much trouble. The Sun Belt schools are a different issue. Monroe is not stout and are coming off of a tough year, but Appalachian State is one of the Belt’s best and blanked Toledo 34-0 in their bowl game.

WR Jaylond Adams is stepping into the very big shoes left by Staggers and Robertson. Quez Watkins will be the number one target. The two combined for 31 catches and about 500 yards and three scores. Robertson had 76 grabs and 1106 and 12 scores in his senior season. That is a giant gap in production to make up.

There will be struggles.

Tez Parks looks to be the man to step in for Ito Smith. In relief duty he had 272 yards on 53 carries, good for 5.1 yards per pop. For comparison, Ito had 5.7. The difference was that Ito was an excellent receiver — the third leading receiver on the team — and that versatility will be required. George Payne and T’Rod Daniels fill out the depth that Hopson was referring to. These guys have been around the offense long enough to know what to do. There is explosiveness and talent here.

Southern Miss has always gotten talent into Hattiesburg, and Hopson and company are going to rely on that to find the next generation of playmakers. The situation does not look good — last year was probably their best shot at challenging for a league and division title in a while — and so while the focus every year is on winning the league, this team’s ceiling is probably a bowl game.

Defense

Tony Pecoraro is at FAU now, and again, the secondary is going to be new and that is a concern. The advanced numbers suggest that secondary experience is the best predictor of defensive success. In a passing league that will be a premium. Louisiana Tech and North Texas both put up big numbers against this defense — the Mean Green’s Jalen Guyton had 200+ — and that was against an experienced crew.

Hopson and company brought in Ty Williams a JR corner out of East Mississippi along with Ky’el Hemby out of Iowa Western to bring some experience to go with a haul of freshman corners.

There is something to be said for playing behind good cornerbacks. Rachuan Mitchell will be the pressed into more service. He played in 11 games last season and started three when Armstrong went down late in the year.

DE Ladarius Harris, Wolf (pass rushing DE) Darian Yancey, and linebackers Jeremy Sangster and Racheem Boothe return. Sangster and Boothe combined fore 5.5 sacks and over 120 tackles combined. Both are rangey short-ish linebackers that make it up with speed and tenacity.

The USM front-four is always sizeable and that will continue this year. Two-star DL Von’Darious Freeman was signed out of SW Miss CC. He’s 6’2″ and 331 and should pair nicely with Delmond Landry, 6’3″ 308 inside. Last season, USM was 4th in the league in yards-per-rush allowed and fourth in yards-per-game allowed. The front-four eat up space and allow those linebackers and Rover safeties to make plays.

The bottom line is that the JUCO signees will have to do a ton to step in and make up for the lost production. There is enough talent around USM to always find some play-makers and

Terrible Predictions

Jackson State and Louisiana-Monroe are winnable games — nigh _should-wins — but App State will be trouble. The have a good defense and a solid offense and could give USM trouble no matter how much Hopson likes the new guys in the secondary. Rice is rebuilding and visiting Hattiesburg but I would watch for them as a sleeper good team. That will not be easy but USM should have enough to overcome a touch challenge.

That brings Auburn Week, in a money game visit to Alabama. Last year there was more than a few inklings that USM could jump up and beat Tennessee and failed — largely because of some QB issues — but this is not the year for upset bids.

UTSA travels to Hattiesburg with a rebuilding team and QB questions of their own. Last year’s trip to San Antonio saw the Golden Eagles open up Pete Golding’s talented defense for big yards and big plays. That defense is missing one NFL first rounder, and does not have the NFL QB leading them. By all measures UTSA should be a win for USM.

Charlotte is very winnable.

Marshall is slated to be one of the better teams in the league and could challenge for the division. The coordinators are new, and the experienced QB is gone. Marshall has usually recruited well but even last year was mostly a good defense propping up a mediocre offense. This will be a tough game, but it is at home. This blog is not a believer in Marshall, so let us call this a win.

USM visits Alabama again, this time for a rematch against the Blazers. UAB dominated at MM Roberts Stadium in one of the worst losses of the season. If Abraham has a nice report with his receivers and everything is clicking the way it is designed to, USM should be much more competitive in Birmingham. The Blazers have a chip on their shoulder and are at home. I see a loss.

Similarly, last year’s epic battle with Louisiana Tech should be much more one-sided this time, as Tech looks stronger. Finally, UTEP hosts the Eagles in the finale in what should be a very winnable game.

Final Terrible Prediction: 7-5

Conference Prediction: 5-3

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