When Southern Miss visited Nebraska in 2012 for the first game in a three game contract, we knew that the Eagles would have a few question marks that season. That might be one of my biggest misses in all of my years of previewing opponents, as the idea that Southern Miss would go 0-12 never even entered my mind. Ellis Johnson was jettisoned after that single season, with the buyout coming from selling the 2013 game (that was supposed to be played in Hattiesburg or maybe New Orleans) back to Lincoln. Now it's 2015 and time for the third game of the series...is Southern Miss back?
Last year, Southern Miss only won three games: Alcorn State, Appalachian State and North Texas. The Eagles lost to Mississippi State 49-9 and Alabama 52-12. Frankly, at this point, maybe Ellis Johnson is taking too much of the blame. Certainly Larry Fedora, who only left 12 starters for Johnson when he left for North Carolina, bears some responsibility. And Todd Monken certainly hasn't fixed the problem yet.
The 2015 Southern Miss offense has nearly as many starters return as the entire 2012 team did; you decide if having all those players back from a 3-9 team is good news or not. Junior quarterback Nick Mullens (6'1" 196 lbs.) returns after starting 16 games his first two seasons in Hattiesburg. Against Nebraska two years ago, he threw two passes in relief late, with one falling incomplete and the other being picked off by Corey Cooper. Last season, he completed 59.7% of his passes for 2,470 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He's not much of a threat to run, gaining only a net of 39 yards last season. Normally a two year starter is a lock to start the next season, but not when the team only won three games the year before and a four-star quarterback transfer is now eligible. Sophomore Tyler Matthews played sparingly as a freshman at TCU in 2013, then bolted the next spring when he couldn't pass Trevone Boykin on the depth chart. Who starts this fall? That's the battle to watch. In the spring game, Mullens completed 17 of 29 passes for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions; Matthews completed 18 of 35 passes for 326 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Who starts? Nobody outside the program knows in July, though we'll certainly know more in September.
No matter who's throwing the ball, there's plenty of experience returning to catch the ball. Senior Michael Thomas (6'1" 186 lbs.) was a late arrival last year from Dodge City Community College but eventually settled in as the Eagles' top receiver, catching 41 passes for 592 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, he was honorable mention all-Conference USA, but Phil Steele put him on his preseason first team all-conference team. Junior Tyre'oune Holmes (5'11" 170 lbs.) returns after missing 2014 with an injury; he led Southern Miss with 53 catches for 410 yards in 2013. Holmes led Southern Miss with 8 catches for 65 yards in the last game in Lincoln. 2014's leading receiver, senior Casey Martin (5'10" 175 lbs.) returns as well after catching 55 passes for 531 yards and two touchdowns last season. Holmes and Martin are both sure-handed possession receivers who've up to now have worked in the slot. Counting Holmes, Southern Miss returns eight of the top nine receivers on the squad last season.
The running back rotation should stay much the same with the top four rushers returning. Sophomore Ito Smith (5'9" 182 lbs.) started 2014 as a true freshman, but then battled injury in the middle of the season. His best performance was a 27 carry, 141 yard and two touchdown effort against Marshall in November. He's a shifty runner who gets upfield in a hurry. A full season in the weight room should help his endurance in 2015. Junior Jalen Richard (5'8" 207 lbs.) resurrected his USM career in the second half of the season and finished the season with 125 yards of total offense and two touchdowns against Alabama-Birmingham in the final game of 2014. Junior George Payne (6'0" 207 lbs.) filled in for Smith at midseason with iffy results, rushing 86 times for 271 yards and six touchdowns on the season.
Unlike the offense, Southern Miss has a lot of holes to fill on defense. Up front, only two regulars return for Southern Miss. Senior Michael Smith (6'4" 277 lbs.) is moving inside from defensive end to tackle, and is being counted on to provide leadership this season. He totaled 31 tackles last season and 33 as a sophomore. Junior defensive end Dylan Bradley (6'1" 265 lbs.) emerged late in the season in the "BANDIT" pass-rushing role. A second-team preseason all-Conference USA pick by Phil Steele, he's being counted on to become a more consistent pass-rushing force. Junior college transfer Ricky Parks (6'3" 280 lbs.) is being counted on to contribute extensively this fall now that's finally enrolled at Southern Miss. The defensive line was solid last season, but with sixth round draft pick Rakeem Nunez-Roches now in Kansas City, it's going to take time to rebuild.
Last season's linebacker play was rather mediocre, especially in passing situations where the linebackers accounted for exactly no sacks for the entire season. Senior middle linebacker Brian Anderson (6'1" 245 lbs.) was the most productive of the bunch in 2014, totaling 65 tackles despite missing four games due to injury. The junior college transfer didn't arrive on campus until August, yet worked his way into the starting lineup to open the season. Junior Elijah Parker (6'2" 208 lbs.) impressed in the second half of the season as well as during spring practice; he seems to be locked into the weakside linebacker spot this season. Junior college transfer D'Nerius Antoine (6'0" 230 lbs.) arrived in January and immediately claimed the starting SPUR linebacker spot this spring. He's impressed in spring and summer workouts, and might be the playmaker that Southern Miss has lacked lately. If that happens, the weakness of the 2014 defense might become a strength in 2015.
Linebackers won't be the strongest part of the defense; that'll be the secondary. Senior cornerback Kalan Reed (5'11" 191 lbs.) returns to lead the defensive backfield; last season, he totaled 32 tackles, two interceptions and a team-leading nine pass breakups. Phil Steele named him to his fourth team all-Conference USA preseason team. It's unclear whether sophomore Picasso Nelson Jr. (5'10" 187 lbs.) will play corner or safety - but he'll play. As a true freshman, he started ten games with 36 tackles and two interceptions last season. They'll be surrounded by a trio of promising sophomores (Jomez Applewhite, Cornell Armstrong, Trae Collins) and a pair of junior college transfers (DeShadrick Truly, Devonta Foster), which should mean that the secondary will be fine in 2015.
Todd Monken's third season should be his best one - which shouldn't be difficult considering that he's 4-20 so far at Southern Miss. This isn't Jeff Bower's program anymore; the days of challenging anybody, anywhere are fading into the past. This Southern Miss team counts improvement as merely trying to find six wins to become bowl eligible. Four wins in three seasons has a way of altering expectations.