Herd football preview: Golden Eagles face uncertainty
Editor’s note: This is the ninth part of a 12-part series previewing Marshall University football opponents in the 2018 season.
HUNTINGTON - Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson has an unenviable situation ahead as the 2018 season approaches.
When looking at this year’s Golden Eagles, there are as many questions still looming as answers presented.
The 2018 season could bring about visions of a bull ride for Hopson, who will constantly be trying to steady an unpredictable lineup that will be full of youth and inexperience.
It starts on the offensive end, where quarterback Kwadra Griggs returns to the mix.
On the surface, that looks like a great equation, considering Griggs was a major offensive part of the Golden Eagles’ winning eight games a season ago.
Digging deeper, however, there are plenty of variables that are cause for concern.
The first layer seen is Griggs’ health, which is in question. Griggs missed some of last season due to injury and he also missed spring practice this year, meaning stability has yet to be found.
Juco quarterback Jack Abraham and fellow returnee Keon Howard, who started in Griggs’ absence last year, battled it out during spring, and just last week, Howard announced that he was leaving Southern Miss, meaning Griggs and Abraham will be left to prepare for the season.
For coaches, things are a balance, and Hopson will feel like his equilibrium is off in fall camp.
As an example, if a team has stability issues at quarterback, they want a strong nucleus of skill players to lighten the load. Or, if graduation losses are heavy at receiver, a coach wants experience at running back to help ease pressure and balance things out.
Hopson gets no such break.
Along with the uncertainty at quarterback, Southern Miss graduated its top three wide receivers and also lost workhorse running back Ito Smith, who was also the team’s third-best receiver, statistically.
It’s a mountain of production loss to overcome for Hopson, but it does help that the campus is situated in the heart of juco heaven in Mississippi.
At wide receiver, Quez Watkins was the most consistent among those returning with limited experience last season. Watkins had 23 catches for 337 yards and two scores. Undoubtedly, though, Tim Jones will need to step up, as will a juco receiver or two in order to provide depth.
As uncertain as that receiver equation is, it is calm compared to the rushing attack, which lost Smith’s 1,800 yards of all-purpose offense and 15 scores.
Oft-injured running back George Payne will have to find a way to stay healthy and carry some of the load, while T’Rod Daniels could provide flash and a nice change of pace for the running game to be established.
That rushing attack will be aided by the return of interior guards Ty Pollard and Arvin Fletcher, who join returning tackle Drake Dorbeck as starters on the offensive line.
There is some good news for Hopson on the defensive side, although it is followed up by some bad news, too.
The good news is that the linebacker corps will be one of the best in the league.
Racheem Boothe is going to be a special player in the league at linebacker, and Jeremy Sangster, while not overly talented, brings forth all the leadership and cohesion tools that coaches want in an on-field general. Sangster’s leadership will be vital to any 2018 success on the field defensively and in the locker room.
While Southern Miss brings back nearly all of its linebacker production from 2017, that is balanced out by the fact that the secondary returns virtually none of its 2017 production.
The entire starting secondary graduated, and the only returnee on the back end with meaningful experience is nickelback Picasso Nelson, who returns after missing 2017 due to injury. Nelson does have three years’ starting experience to his credit, but he will have to knock off the rust quickly and explode into a veteran leadership role on the back end, which is asking a lot.
The best medicine for an inexperienced back end on the defense is a solid pass rush, and there, Hopson and defensive coordinator Tim Billings - who took over the defense days before spring drills - caught a break.
LaDarius Harris and Jacques Turner provide a strong rush presence up front, and Darian Yancey joins Paxton Schrimsher at the “wolf” position (DE/LB hybrid) to add to that pressure. Expect Billings to bring heat from many angles in the front seven to take some heat off his secondary.
There is also good news in the game’s third phase as well, where kicker Parker Shaunfield returns and will be one of the country’s better kickers. His ability to connect consistently from distance has been strong throughout his career. Punter Zac Everett also returns after a successful freshman season.
Generally, special teams would not get as much weight in a team’s season outlook, but given the potential rollercoaster ride on both sides of the ball, special teams will need to be a calming force for the Golden Eagles in 2018.
If they can win the game’s third phase, there is enough talent on offense to stay in games and enough experience in the front seven to make several games into grind-it-out affairs.
The road will not be an easy venture for the Golden Eagles, with tough non-conference games at Appalachian State and Auburn, followed by a pair of conference road contests at West Division contenders North Texas and UAB.
Things could come together for Southern Miss and the defense-led Golden Eagles could win eight or nine games and contend for a C-USA West crown with a conference road win or two.
Or the lack of offensive skill experience could cause the young secondary to be on the field too much, which could lead to a breakdown on the back end and trouble in all phases. If that happens, a tough four-win campaign is well within reason, too.
There aren’t many teams nationally whose win-loss range is spread over a five-game span, but Southern Miss is one of them.
It is simply that uncertain as the season approaches.
Marshall at Southern Miss:
Kickoff: 3 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 3, M.M. Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
TV: Stadium/Facebook (Streaming)
Radio: WDGG 93.7-FM, 930-AM, 1340-AM
Southern Miss at a glance:
Nickname: Golden Eagles
Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Stadium: M.M. Roberts Stadium
Affiliation: NCAA Division I, Football Bowl Subdivision
Conference: Conference USA
2017 record: 8-5 (6-2, C-USA West Division)
Head coach: Jay Hopson
Series record: Southern Miss leads 7-6
Last meeting: 2017: Southern Miss won, 28-27