With a new coaching staff and only twelve returning starters from 2011, nobody really knew what to expect from Southern Miss in 2012. I don't think anybody expected 0-12. An eighteen year streak of winning seasons? Gone. And so is head coach Ellis Johnson. One year of Johnson was more than enough for Southern Miss. Worst offense in Conference USA, and one of the worst defenses in division 1-A. Who could blame them?
The only question regarding the termination of Ellis Johnson was buying out the contract...and Nebraska helped there. Southern Miss sold this year's game back to Nebraska, and used the proceeds to pay off Johnson. Everybody's a winner: Nebraska gets another home game, and Southern Miss cuts their losses.
To replace Johnson, Southern Miss went back to a proven source: hire the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator. It worked with Jeff Bower, who spent 18 years in Hattiesburg. It worked again with Larry Fedora. And now, the Golden Eagles are giving Todd Monken a shot.
Certainly the Oklahoma State offenses have been prolific under Monken, but that was Oklahoma State. This is Southern Miss, where last year's top two passing quarterbacks (and I use the term loosely) are gone. Anthony Alford, who rushed for 84 yards in Lincoln last season, found himself banned from campus in November after a campus altercation. Though the charges were eventually reduced to a misdemeanor, he transferred to Ol' Miss. Arsenio Favor, who missed the Nebraska game due to injury, transferred to Alabama State, That leaves 6'2" senior Chris Campbell, who completed 49% of his passes for 322 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions in four games, and 6'2" sophomore Ricky Lloyd, a 50% passer for 277 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions, as the experienced options. Lloyd was recruited to Southern Miss by Larry Fedora, so if you think that there might be a relationship between Todd Monken's system with Fedora's based on their Oklahoma State background, you might see Lloyd emerge. But it sounds like Southern Miss is going to look at all options. After spring practice, it sounded like 6'5" redshirt freshman Kyle Sloter could win this job. Then former Cal quarterback Allan Bridgford announced he planned to transfer to Southern Miss. If he completes his degree this summer, he's eligible to play immediately. (Think the "Russell Wilson plan".) It's also worth mentioning that 6'0" sophomore walk-on Cole Weeks threw for 310 yards in the spring game, for what it's worth.
At least Southern Miss has some quality options at running back. 5'10" 210 lb. sophomore Jalen Richard rushed for 426 yards on 86 carries last season. 6'0" 222 lb. senior Kendrick Hardy rushed for 903 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman, and 426 yards as a sophomore until a shoulder injury ended his season after just four games. As a junior, a hamstring injury limited him to just 30 carries and 151 yards. Is he past the injury bug, and could he put up numbers like he did as a freshman?
If Todd Monken wants to throw the ball more, he's going to need some receivers....and none are readily apparent at this point. The most likely candidate is 6'4" 207 pound junior Dominique Sullivan, who caught 19 passes for 337 yards and a touchdown last season. As a freshman, he caught 32 passes for 461 yards and two scores. 6'0" sophomore receiver Cooper Harrington had a decent spring, which might be something worth keeping an eye on this fall.
Up front, the offensive line only returns two starters from a not-terribly effective line. 6'3" 309 lb. senior right guard Ed Preston should be the leader, though 6'5" 289 lb. senior right tackle Vincent Brown is in a position battle with 6'4" 278 lb. junior Cedric Chisolm. 6'4" 325 lb. arrived in the spring after an NJCAA all-American season in 2012; you have to expect him to play SOMEWHERE.
The good news on defense is nine starters return. The bad news on defense is that means almost all of a defense that ranked 108th nationally in rushing defense, 113th in scoring defense, and 113th in takeaways is back. The big loss is hybrid defensive end/linebacker Jamie Collins, who was a third round draft pick of the New England Patriots. But returning defensive coordinator David Duggan is familiar with most of his players after spending 2008 through 2011 in Hattiesburg on Fedora's staff.
6'3" 308 lb. defensive tackle Khyri Thornton was probably the best player up front not named Collins last season, so he's likely going to be the centerpiece of the defensive line. Phil Steele named him to the preseason all-Conference USA first-team last month. 6'2" 290 lb. defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches was an honorable mention all-conference pick last season, which should make the interior the relative strength of the defensive line. 6'4" 262 pound sophomore defensive end Michael Smith might be the emerging playmaker; he had 6.5 tackles for loss as a freshman.
Last year, Southern Miss had to break in an entirely new set of linebackers due to graduation. This season, everybody is back, if that's of any consolace to Golden Eagle fans. Senior linebacker Alan Howze (6'2", 219 lbs) is the leading returning tackler from last season with 66. Fellow senior Dylan Reda (6'3" 235 lbs.) added 55 last season.
Many felt that the secondary performed reasonably well last season, if such a thing is possible during a winless season. The Eagles ranked 43rd nationally in pass defense last season, and this year, they'll be led by senior cornerback Deron Wilson, another preseason first-team all-Conference USA selection by Phil Steele. The 5'10" corner amassed 61 tackles and nine pass breakups last season.
Even if Monken can find answers to many of Southern Miss's many issues last season, there's the matter of the schedule to deal with. After opening the season against Texas State, the Eagles face the Huskers, Arkansas, and Boise State on the road the next three weeks. That presumed 1-3 start simply means that just getting back to bowl eligibility might be a major accomplishment in 2013...especially coming off a winless 2012 season.