Southern Miss ended the 2011 season on a high note: a 12-2 record and a Conference USA championship. That championship was won on the road as the Golden Eagles rolled into Houston and proceeded to knock the Cougars out of consideration for a BCS bowl berth. But the 2012 Eagles are not the same team as the 2011 version; Southern Miss only returns 12 starters from that team. Even the coaching staff left; Larry Fedora headed to North Carolina, replaced by South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
Playing a first year coaching staff in the season opener means that Nebraska really has to guess what Southern Miss will show, and be ready to react and adjust as the game goes on. Defensive coordinator Tommy West (you may remember him as a former head coach of Clemson and Memphis) will retain the 4-2-5 scheme. Offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle (you may remember him as the opposing coach for the 300th consecutive sellout game against Louisiana-Lafayette in 2009) will move away from a pass-happy offense to utilize the running game more.
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Not that this should be any surprise with the departure of four-year starting quarterback Austin Davis. Even without a coaching change, you had to expect the offense to shift away from pass-first with an unsettled quarterback situation. If you have to pick a starting quarterback today, chances are it would be 6'4" junior Chris Campbell, who has yet to throw a pass in his college career. Yeah. Second on the post-spring depth chart is probably 6'3" redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd. Last year's backup, sophomore Arsenio Favor completed one of three passes for eight yards in 2011. And if nobody makes a move in preseason practice, the Eagles just might turn to four-star incoming freshman Anthony Alford. Alford turned down offers from the likes of LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, Clemson, South Carolina, and Nebraska to sign with Southern Miss. I figure he'll be the starter by some point in the season, but probably not in the season opener.
No matter who the Eagles choose, they'll be playing an inexperienced quarterback in 2012, and that would indicate a heavy reliance on the running game. Last year's leading rusher, Jamal Woodyard (732 yards and three touchdowns on just 110 carries) is expected to miss the entire season with a knee injury. (Woodyard was also arrested in May for second-degree robbery.) Senior Desmond Johnson should start; he rushed for 424 yards on 75 carries last season. Injuries limited him to just seven games last year. Jeremy Hester is a short, powerful back who rushed for 291 yards on 59 carries last year. Junior Kendrick Hardy nearly rushed for 1000 yards as a freshman, but a shoulder injury limited him to five games...though he still rushed for 426 yards on 72 carries. If this group can stay healthy, this should be a formidable group...and you have to expect them to be fresh in the season opener.
Southern Miss loses their top two receivers from last year, so expect slot receiver Tracy Lampley to be the featured receiver this season. Last year, he caught 47 passes for 574 yards and four touchdowns. On the outside, senior Quentin Pierce should become a full-time starter, though junior Francisco Llanos is expected to unseat mistake-prone Dominique Sullivan for the other spot. The new offense is expected to utilize 6'5" 245 pound tight end Ryan Hanks more. He'll probably be used more for blocking, but three of his seven career catches were for touchdowns.
Four starters return on the offensive line led by second-team all-Conference USA tackle Jason Weaver, who will switch from right tackle to left tackle. Working along side him is steady left guard Joe Duhon and center Austin Quattrochi. The right side is more unsettled; left guard will be manned by either senior Darius Barnes or junior Ed Preston. Both have starting experience, but Barnes had the edge coming out of spring practice. The big question mark is at right tackle, where inexperienced junior Vincent Brown is slotted to take over. What he lacks in experience (only played one year of high school football), he makes up for in raw talent.
While Southern Miss plans to retain the 4-2-5 defensive scheme, they'll have to replace six starters. Up front, senior "Bandit" Jamie Collins is going to continue in his role as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Last season, the 6'4" 239 pounder tied for the team lead in tackles with 98 last season, including 19.5 tackles for loss. At defensive end on the other side, sophomore Dasman McCullum is expected to step up his game and become a playmaker up front. Junior defensive tackle Khyri Thornton is expected to have a big season as well solidifying the middle.
At linebacker, the Eagles are essentially stating over as the top three linebackers from last season are gone. Converted running back Alan Howze had 22 tackles last season as a backup; he'll get a shot totake over at middle linebacker. Junior college transfer Dylan Reda will get the nod at weakside linebacker; he had 174 tackles tackles and 10 sacks in two seasons at Santa Ana College.
Three starters return in the secondary, led by junior cornerback Deron Wilson. The 5'10" Wilson is a two year starter who had 75 tackles with 4 interceptions and 13 pass breakups last season. He's not a physical corner, but he'll keep up with receivers and he'll step up to stop the run. Junior safety Jacorius Cotton is a physical presence who tied for the team lead with 98 last season. Junior Jerrion Johnson started most of last season at the "Spur" nickle back position, but only totaled 31 tackles. Look for defenses to test whoever starts at the other cornerback spot this season; it'll come down to 5'10" junior Alexander Walters or maybe 6'0" senior Marcal Robinson.
While Nebraska may find a few insights into Southern Miss' coaching staff by looking at 2009 Louisiana-Lafayette and last year's South Carolina game film, it's going to be somewhat of a guessing game initially. And that makes this a dangerous opening game for the season. It's a game Nebraska should win, but there is just enough uncertainty that if Nebraska gets off to a sluggish start, it's a game Nebraska could lose. Husker fans probably remember the last time Southern Miss came to Lincoln. Southern Miss converted four Nebraska turnovers into points and won despite the Huskers outgaining the Eagles 476-239.