Perhaps a more accurate sentiment would be that it’s a long way back to the top if you want to rock ‘n’ roll. Just four years ago, Southern Miss went 12-2 and beat an undefeated Houston for the C-USA championship. Since, the Golden Eagles have won four games in the last three seasons and are desperately trying to claw their way back to respectability.
A hallmark of the good Southern Miss teams of the 2000s was a strong passing attack. They regained some measure of that last year, and should continue to build on that going forward.
Nick Mullens was decent last year and improved after a rough freshman season. He completed nearly 60% of his passes and was just shy of 2,500 yards through the air. However, he isn’t guaranteed the starting job after the arrival of TCU transfer Tyler Matthews. Matthews was highly touted coming out of high school, and if the proverbial light bulb hadn’t come on for Trevone Boykin last year there’s a good chance Matthews would be the starter in Fort Worth.
Southern Miss wasn’t great running the ball last season, and no back really stood out. Ito Smith led the team with 536 rushing yards, but could only muster two rushing touchdowns. However, it is a positive that the top five rushers from last season, including Mullens, return.
The same thing that was said of the running game could be said of the receiving corps. There was no true go-to-guy in the bunch, but collectively it was a fairly productive group. One guy to watch is Tyre’oune Holmes. Holmes is a slot receiver who led the team in receptions in 2013, but missed all of 2014 with an injury. He could be a key piece in the passing game if he can stay healthy.
Cameron Tom will lead the offensive line on the field and in the classroom. Tom is a 3.8 GPA business major, and widely considered the top center in the conference. He and left tackle Rashod Hill both have over 20 career starts, and the line as a whole has eight players with two or more starts. All in all, this unit should at least give the Eagles an opportunity to make plays.
Last year’s defense wasn’t great, but at least had some decent pieces. Most of those pieces are gone, however, and rebuilding this year may make for some tough sledding, particularly early.
The rebuild starts up front. The defensive line was easily the strength of this defense last year, but they will have to find three new starters this year. There are five guys on the defensive line that did see at least some playing time last year, so hopefully a few members of that group can step up.
This linebacking unit was pretty anonymous last year and their best player is gone. This group had less than ten tackles for loss, no sacks, no interceptions, one forced fumble and no fumble recoveries. That won’t cut it. Look for JUCO transfer and converted safety D’Nerius Antoine to step in and play immediately.
Cornerback depth is easily the strength of this defense. There are three corners returning to this team who a.) played in all 12 games and b.) had two interceptions. Those names are Kalan Reed, Nelson Armstrong, Jr., and Jomez Applewhite. Two more, Cornell Armstrong and Trae Collins, played in twelve and ten games respectively. Both starting safeties have to be replaced, but likely replacements Troy Jeter and Kevin Williams, Jr. both saw the field last season.
Matching your win total from the previous three seasons combined is a significant stride, and the Golden Eagles are in position to do just that. This may sound like a broken record if you’ve read my other previews, but while 4-8 is not a good record by any stretch, for a Group of Five team who’s been down-and-out for a few seasons it’s got to offer some comfort to see the win total continue to increase.
Credit Cover Photo to Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire