There was much success and feelings of accomplishment realized by the program. However, it was the 17-0 result to Utah in the Liberty Bowl that left everyone in the Southern Miss football family feeling that they left Memphis without accomplishing their final goal of the season.
Three months later, the Southern Miss football team went back to work and looked to improve. Now, as they are head into the new season, the Golden Eagles are preparing for the new challenges that will face them in the upcoming season.
Most of the challenges center around the defense. It was hit especially hard by graduation, leaving only four returning starters. Even though the outside linebackers and interior defensive line return in good shape, the defensive backfield has to be totally rebuilt and starters and depth have to replaced at both defensive end positions and a starter has to emerge at the middle linebacker position.
Three of the top defensive players in the school's history are gone from last year's defense. Arguably one of the top defensive players, three-time All-American linebacker Rod Davis was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. One of the best cover corners in the school, conference and nation, Greg Brooks, a two-time all-conference selection, was drafted in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals. Also taken in the sixth round by the Atlanta Falcons was one of the best safeties in the school and conference history, Etric Pruitt, a two-time All-American.
Also gone are defensive ends Terrell Paul and Ronald Jones, both All-Conference USA selections in 2003. Defensive backs Corey Yates and All-Conference USA honoree Alex Ray are both gone as well. Jones signed a free-agent contract with the San Francisco 49ers and Yates with the St. Louis Rams.
"We lost a lot of quality football players with years of experience on the defense from last year's squad," said Southern Miss Head Coach Jeff Bower, a three-time C-USA Coach of the Year who is in his 14th season. "We'll start with a lot of new faces on defense with not as much playing experience. I'm not saying we don't have as much talent there, because I believe we have a lot of talent. We just don't have the experience factor that we've had. That is a primary concern for us.
"I think our linebacker positions will be fine but we have some holes to fill at the defensive end positions and we lost all the starters in the secondary. We need some of the other players to step up and claim those positions and put us in the position to win the championship like we've done in the past."
Even though the offense returns nine starters from last year, depth on the offensive line, at running back and at the receiver positions has to be developed. During 2003, a lack of depth at these positions hurt the Golden Eagles at times during the season.
The tight end position has to be filled with the loss of all-conference performer Terrell Browden, who signed a free-agent deal with the Cleveland Browns. All-Conference USA center Jim Hicks also finished out his career for the Golden Eagles and that position will have to be filled as well.
"There was a lot of good competition during the spring," Bower said. "We have a chance to be deeper offensively this year, especially on the offensive line. We're a lot more situated at the fullback position, so, if they continue to work and improve, they will be able to help us there. We have more depth at tight end but need more at the receiver positions. We have several quality tailbacks but need someone, or a couple of players, to separate themselves. We need running backs to get more out of plays than we did last year."
The starting specialists return, but consistency is the focal point for them. Some positions on the special teams' phases have to be replaced with the losses due to graduation. The coaching staff changed its special teams' philosophy and decided to put the best 11 players on the field, no matter who they were. Some of the phases started out slow but as the season progressed, the special teams' enjoyed one of the most productive seasons in several years.
The coaching staff underwent changes as Defensive Backs Coach Jay Hopson and Running Backs Coach Shelton Gandy both left to pursue other opportunities. Long-time coaching veteran Ron McCrone returns to Southern Miss as the defensive backs coach. He was a member of the Golden Eagles coaching staff in the early 1970s under Head Coach P.W. Underwood. Jay Johnson, in his second year on the staff, moved from the tight ends coach to mentor the running backs, while former Golden Eagle standout and Defensive Graduate Assistant Coach Derrick Nix was hired as the tight ends coach.
Bower and his staff have had many challenges to tackle over their tenure at Southern Miss and have, time and time again, continued to build successful football teams. With the returning veterans and talented newcomers, the 2003 squad should be ready to start its journey toward the fifth Conference USA title and the seventh bowl invitation in the last eight years.
The schedule will present a challenge of its own. The Golden Eagles will play an 11-game schedule for the first time in three years. Southern Miss will face tough non-conference battles at Nebraska to open the season on Sept. 11, at home against California the next week on Sept. 18 and against the always tough Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Oct. 16. The Conference USA road slate has the Golden Eagles visiting Tulane on Sept. 25, USF on Oct. 2; Memphis on Friday, Nov. 13; and at TCU on Nov. 20. Houston will visit "The Rock" on Thursday, Oct. 7; East Carolina for homecoming on Oct. 23; Cincinnati on Nov. 6; and the season will conclude with UAB on Nov. 27.
Heading into last year's spring practices, there were definitely a number of concerns on the offensive side of the football. Not only was the Golden Eagle offense riddled with inexperience in a number of key positions, but a new offensive scheme by a fairly new offensive staff also was added to the mix.
But what a difference a year makes. Now, after the second spring campaign with all but one coach different and all but two returning starters back for another season, the Southern Miss offense is poised to build on the success it had enjoyed over the latter stages of the 2003 Conference USA championship season.
Second-year offensive coordinator Rip Scherer knows that his offensive unit is a year bigger, a year stronger, and more importantly, a year smarter. While the team is far ahead of where it was at the same time last season, Scherer knows that the offense must continue to build on whatever success it had last season for the team to be even more successful in 2004.
"Obviously, we should be ahead of where we have been, and I hope that we can build on the confidence that we developed in the second half of last season, irrespective of the bowl game," Scherer said. "I do believe that we are much further ahead in terms of our understanding of what we are doing, and I think we can build on that and accelerate our progress. There are a lot of things that we didn't get to last fall, some of them subtle and some not so subtle, that I think we can get to now because we have a basic foundation in place."
No longer are the offensive coaches trying to spoon-feed nuggets of information concerning a new scheme to the young offensive players. Instead, the team can focus on the little intricacies that make the offense tick, without the worry about figuring out whether or not people are lined up in the right formation on any specific play.
Scherer knows that experience will be a key factor this season, with virtually the entire starting unit back on the field. And it will be that experience in all positions that will be critical to the team's success.
"I think it's huge that we have so many returning players," Scherer said. "We have some key players coming back."
With the return of quarterback Dustin Almond, wide receivers Marvin Young, Antwon Courington and DaRon Lawrence, running backs Anthony Harris and Tim Blackwell, and dozens of combined starts from the offensive line, experience is at a premium. But Scherer and company know that there is no room to rest on the laurels of the past.
"The spring was very positive," Scherer said. "We have a great attitude, and there is a difference in confidence which translates into practice and intensity. By virtue of the way we did prepare and practice (last season), gives us a lot better feeling going into the season. We are better. Now, that is not to be confused with good. We are better, and we are trying to be good."
With any good offense, there has to be a good field general in place to make sure things run smoothly. And when things don't run as smoothly, the field general's job becomes even more important. On offense, it is the quarterback who serves as the field general, and this season, the quarterback position is one where the Golden Eagles will be well equipped.
Heading into the fall season, the quarterbacks feature one returning starter – redshirt junior Dustin Almond -- that will be pushed by a pair of young bucks – sophomore Damion Carter and redshirt-freshman Jeremy Young -- ready to take the lead.
Following spring practice, Almond appears to be the clear-cut starter for the 2004 season, but the Golden Eagles have a good problem in that all three of the quarterbacks vying to lead the team are more than capable of handling the job.
"Dustin is significantly ahead, because he has played a lot more games and also because he has put a lot more into the mental part of the game," Scherer said. "That is what has separated him. The other two guys are going to be neck and neck until one of them shows that he can be the No. 2 guy or that he could compete with Dustin. Right now, Dustin is our number one and Jeremy and Damion are 2A and 2B. They are both talented and both young. They both have a lot of positive qualities and areas in which they need to improve."
With the various options at quarterback, Scherer knows that the Golden Eagles will be in good hands. Each brings his own unique strengths to the table, while at the same time, are very similar in what they can do for the football team. And as Scherer will tell you, that is a good problem to have.
"Fortunately, they are all three pretty good athletes," Scherer said. "The two younger guys might be a little more explosive than Dustin, but again he is a good athlete in his own right. I don't think that we have to change dramatically our style from one quarterback to another, because I think they all are close enough athletically to give us the capability to do the broad spectrum of the things that we want to do."
As the veteran of the group, Almond brings the experience and maturity to the position that is important and vital to the success of the team. After taking over five games into the season as the No. 1 starter, Almond came into his own and helped lead Southern Miss to its fourth C-USA title since 1996. He finished the year with 1,877 yards and 13 touchdowns on 121-of-251 passing. He has the tools to be a successful quarterback and will be a tough person to uproot from his spot as the starter.
"Dustin has a big arm," Scherer said. "He has a better understanding, and he has tons of experience now because of his two years. He is competitive. I think that as his mental development continues, he will get better and better. He has some things physically that he needs to work on, but mentally, there are some things where his development will really accelerate his growth."
Carter boasts a bit more experience than Young, after being thrust into the lineup out of necessity last season. As a freshman, Carter played in five games, starting two of them, and finished with 238 yards and two touchdowns on 26-of-42 passing. He, too, has the talent to be a leader on the field and a success in the signal-callers spot.
"Damion is probably a little quicker than any of them," Scherer said. "He has a quick arm, although it may not be the strongest of the three arms."
Young is the freshest of the group, after serving as the primary scout team quarterback last season. But like the other two, Young aims to make it tough to keep him off the field in the fall.
"Jeremy is somewhere in between Dustin and Damion athletically as far as quickness," Scherer said. "He has a real good arm, and has a pretty good understanding mentally."
The Running Backs
The running backs will be one of two groups this season that will have a new coach at the helm. Jay Johnson, who spent last season tutoring the tight ends, moves over as the running backs coach and takes over for the departed Shelton Gandy. While new to the backs, however, Johnson's familiarity with the offensive scheme and the team in general has aided in the transition.
"I think the transition has been good," Johnson said. "Obviously, Coach Gandy had done a great job and had been here and had a lot of success. I am just trying to get in and develop a relationship with the players. With the spring, we had an opportunity to do that. They can see how I am going to respond in certain situations, and I can see how they are going to respond. You kind of feel each other out, but I think overall it's been good."
According to Johnson, the running backs feature a good amount of experience, to go along with a nice mix of fresh talent. Returnees Anthony Harris (r-Jr.), Tim Blackwell (r-Sr.) and Sherron Moore (Sr.), along with newcomers Larry Thomas (r-Fr.) and Cody Hull (r-Fr.), make the running back unit a strong one in terms of what it can offer to the offense as a whole.
Harris started last season as a fullback but was moved to the running back position during the off week and made the most of the transition keeping the starting position for the remainder of the season. He finished with a team-leading 671 yards on 158 carries, an average of 4.2 yards a carry and scored seen touchdowns for the season. He will enter the fall as the starter at running back.
Blackwell and Thomas will challenge Harris in the fall and Hull will battle for playing time. Blackwell was the second-leading rusher on the team with 332 yards on 82 carries, an average of 4.0 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. He showed signs of being an explosive back last season but was too inconsistent. Thomas redshirted last season and enjoyed an outstanding spring campaign and the coaching staff believes he has a solid future.
Johnson expects the returning stars to step up even more in 2004, for it will be through their play that the team could accomplish its goals.
"Overall the running backs are a good hard-working group," Johnson said. "We need to have our returning players continue to improve and compete. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and we need to develop on those weaknesses so that we can become better."
The returnees – who combined for 1,320 yards and 10 touchdowns last season – should be complemented nicely by the two younger players in Thomas and Hull. "We have been trying to get them a lot of work and give them an opportunity to see if they will fit in the mix in the fall," Johnson said. "They have both shown some good things, and we have been giving them a lot of reps."
The full back spot – a by-product of the two-back system installed last season – also has its share of returning experience for the upcoming season. Both projected starter Wayne Hardy (r-So.) and backup Bobby Weakley (So.) saw integral time last season, and both expect to figure into the mix again this season.
"As far as the full back spot, the main guy who came on at the end of last year, Wayne Hardy, is one we expect to do some real big things. Bobby Weakley is in a little bit of an interesting situation, because he is throwing for track and couldn't participate as much in the spring. Both of those guys are young, and we just really have to improve that spot."
As with virtually every other position on the offense, having a year in the system will serve as a big asset to the 2004 team. And along with that experience for the running backs, comes a greater responsibility to help lead the offense in all aspects of the game.
"We had some goals: to pay attention to detail, to work hard and be physical and to have great effort," Johnson said. "The backs, we just have to improve, and I hope that we can become better. We have to do a better job when we don't have the football in our hand. We need to become better blockers and be more involved in the pass game. I am just looking for us to develop our game and become a little more complete.
"We set the tempo of practice, and I am looking to those older guys to do that and get that done. I hope the guys who have been here for a few years can bring that."
The Wide Receivers
While experience is a big factor at every offensive position, it may have to play an even bigger role with the wide receivers. For with the wideouts, it isn't necessarily the amount of experience as it is the amount of experienced players.
Heading into the fall season, the wide receivers have a strong core of returnees from last year, but the group also is limited with the loss of two players – Pedi Causey (Jr.) and Caleb Hendrix (So.) – to other positions and the loss of another – Kenny Johnson – to graduation.
"Right now, I would say that we are thin compared to where we were last year and last fall," Wide Receivers Coach Dave Warner said. "We moved Pedi Causey inside to help with the tight ends, and Caleb Hendrix went over to defense. We lost Kenny Johnson to graduation. We have three returning starters, which is a good thing, but I think we are in a situation where some freshmen are going to have to come into help us."
Three-year starter Marvin Young (Sr.) anchors the wide receivers this season, while fellow starters Antwon Courington (Jr.) and DaRon Lawrence (r-Sr.), return to anchor their respective slots. The fourth receiver, Anthony Perine (So.), also has a year of experience under his belt as he was one of two freshman, along with Hendrix, who had to step in a contribute in 2003.
An All-Conference USA performer last season, Young led the team with 703 yards and seven touchdowns on 42 catches, an average of 16.7 yards per catch. Lawrence (37 catches, 536 yards and two touchdowns) and Courington (36 catches, 532 yards and three touchdowns) followed in second and third, respectively.
"Experience for us will be a strength. Having three starters come back is a plus because they know the offense," Warner said. "That also has enabled us to focus on not what to do, but more so how to do it – technique and attention to detail, route-running, etc.
"Marvin Young has played a lot at Southern Miss and has made a lot of plays. We expect him to continue to do that. He definitely has been a big play receiver for us last year, and we are just going to keep expecting big things from him and expect him to be a better football player.
"I think Antwon Courington is a complete package. He has the size, and he is a legitimate big-time receiver. He has the strength and the speed, and he is our best blocker on the perimeter. He had a good year for us, and I think he could be a dominant player.
"DaRon Lawrence just needs to keep improving. He made some big plays for us as well, but he has to become more consistent for us."
In addition to the four returnees, Chris Rhoden (r-Fr.) and Adam Hurst (r-Fr.) also will be expected on to contribute this time around.
"The biggest question again would just be depth," Warner said. "We need to find out who will provide the depth for us. With Perine being our fourth receiver, we feel that those top four guys are good enough for us to be conference champs again. But you can't go through a season with four receivers. We need to find out who will fill out those other three spots. That is up in the air right now. We are trying to fight our way through the spring and then come August, have answers to those questions."
The Offensive Line
The offensive line enters the 2004 season with perhaps more experience than any other group on the team. Four of the five starters return from last season's group and a fifth was a spot starter during last year's campaign.
All-Conference USA linemen Jeremy Parquet (r-Sr.) and Chris White (Sr.) return to anchor the front line, while starters George Batiste (r-So.), All-Conference USA Freshman team member Travis Cooley (r-So.) and spot-starter Addaryl Edwards (r-Sr.) also return for the season. Only center Jim Hicks is gone from last season's group.
"Hopefully, we will be a vastly improved group," said Offensive Line Coach Mitch Rodrigue. "Last year, I went in with the philosophy of just teaching them what to do, and then we would come back and teach them how to do it later. This year, it's just kind of reversed. We are going back and re-touching on a lot of technical and fundamental things, including steps and landmarks. We are not particularly worried about what to do, but how to do it, because the players pretty much already know what to do. They have had a year under their belt with me."
Like with every other position however, Rodrigue knows that establishing the key elements of the offensive line will be important.
"We return experience at most of the positions but need to fill the center position," Rodrigue said. "Addaryl Edwards is playing that role right now. Losing Jim and his experience is something that you have to overcome."
But the experience factor, with so many returnees who have had adequate playing time factoring in, will be of big benefit to the offensive line.
"It's a tremendous advantage for us," Rodrigue said. "Usually when you install plays in the spring, you keep in mind the offensive line position because those guys have to do the most learning. We were able to speed up the installation process because of that experience."
Adding depth to the offensive line will be Chris Clark (r-Fr.), Neal Mead (r-Jr.) and junior college transfer Joseph Leech at the tackle spots, junior college transfer Ricardo Clark and Bradley Worthington (r-Jr.) and Myron Powe (r-Sr.) at the guard spots and Robby D'Angelo (So.) at center. Other players who could factor into the mix also include Greg Taylor (r-Fr.), Kendel Wheeler (r-Jr.) and Rick Thompson (r-Fr.). Johnathan Landor (r-Fr.) was moved from the defensive line to the guard position in the spring, and Derek Chapman (r-Fr.) was moved from the tight end position to the center position to add depth.
Not only are the returnees expected to step up on the field, but Rodrigue also is expecting seniors Parquet and White to step up as leaders.
"I am expecting a lot of leadership and a lot of know how out of them," Rodrigue said. "I am expecting a lot of results. We wanted to focus on fundamentals. In the season, it is so hard to come back and teach those things. It's not like having a spring under your belt, where you are accustomed to a coach and his terminology.
"We just want to be better fundamentally. Another goal would be to understand the why behind every play. Not only what their assignment is, but overall what they are trying to accomplish on certain plays."
The Tight Ends
While the other positions on the offensive unit were immune to the inexperience bug, the tight ends position wasn't that lucky. With the loss of leader and starter Terrell Browden to graduation, a new face will step up to be the man at the tight end spot. That new face will also be taught by a new coach – former running back and defensive graduate assistant Derrick Nix.
Hoping to fill in Browden's shoes is redshirt senior Otho Graves. Graves is someone who Nix feels could do the job at the tight end, being one who has the versatility to succeed at the position.
"Otho Graves is a guy who played a lot for us last season, and he is a guy who knows the system well," Nix said. "I think he has the talent and the ability to be the total tight end that you want. He is someone who can block, catch and run routes."
Along with Graves (Sr.), returnee Patrick Corbett (r-Sr.) and converted wide receiver Pedi Causey should figure into the mix, giving the team various options in either a two-tight end or passing situation.
"We moved Pedi Causey over from wide receiver to give us another guy who is good at getting down the field," Nix said. "He will help us be vertical and stretch out the defense a lot. Patrick Corbett is another tight end whose strongest asset is in the running game. He is going to line up like another lineman or an extra tackle in the game. "
Nix wants to see his players be more physical in both the running and the passing games, which in turn will help get the most out of the position to help the offense to be successful.
"Overall, we just have to be more physical," Nix said. "We have to come in to games and dominate our one-on-one battles. I think that will not only help in the run game but in the passing game as well."
The 2003 defense once again proved to be an outstanding unit and ranked among the best in the nation in several categories. The defense allowed 17.3 points a game, the best in Conference USA and No. 14 in the nation. The pass defense was the best in the conference and fifth best in the nation, giving up 174 yards a contest. The Golden Eagles also were ranked No. 13 in the nation in pass efficiency defense, No. 23 in total defense and tied for No. 9 in turnovers gained.
Entering the new season, four starters and 18 letterwinners return, led by All-American strong-side linebacker Michael Boley, who is a 2004 preseason All-American selection and one of the best talents not only in Conference USA but in the nation. He is joined by a teammate at weak-side linebacker Antoine Cash, who will be claiming his starting position for the second year in a row. Interior defensive tackles Eric Scott and Chad Ruffin were both starters a year ago.
"Our goal always is to put the best 11 players on the field at the same time," Defenisve Coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "We want them to take as many snaps together as possible and keep doing the same things over and over. Through that, we hope to build a bond between the guys and let them know where they fit within the scheme. That also helps them realize that their part in the system and gives us the best possible chance to be successful on the field."
There are several other returnees with significant playing time that will look to step in and take an active role in reloading the defense. Players such as John Eubanks (DB), Trevis Coley (DB), Kevis Coley (LB), Dillon Cleckler (LB), Seth Cumbie (DB), Pierre Hutchins (DB), LeVon Pears (DE), DeMarcus Barner (DE) and Darrell Bennett (DB).
"Our defense will be young and inexperienced, but we have some kids who are willing to work hard and do the little things that will give us a chance to be successful," Nix said. "During the offseason and two-a-days, we will go out and work hard and learn as much as we can about the scheme, so we can continue to play the way we have.
"The biggest strength has been our willingness to work hard and improve. Our attitude has been good, and for the most part, they have done what we have asked them to do. Our weakness is our lack of experience and repetition. We can expose as much as possible on the field, but until they get in game situation, you don't know how they are going to respond, and if they will be able to make the plays. We have some leaders and they are going to have to step forward and we are going to have to ride their coat tails until we all get on the same page."
Even though seven starters are gone, Nix and his staff already have been working hard on putting the pieces into place and reloading the defense in preparation for the upcoming season.
He and his staff had a similar task in Nix's first year as defensive coordinator in 2001, when the Golden Eagles lost seven starters from the 2000 team, one of the best defenses in the school's history. A majority of last year's seniors were the same players that helped reload the defense that year.
"What made the 2001 group special was their work ethic and their attitude," Nix said. "They believed in what we were teaching, and I believe we will have the same attitude as those guys but we are going to have to learn it in a hurry and eliminate the mistakes as quick as possible."
Both starters from the interior line return this season, while both starters at the defensive end positions are gone. Starters at both end positions have to be established, as well as depth has to be built along the entire line. The line was hit with injuries in the spring and how fast they heal and if they are back to full strength for the preseason, will be the determining factors when evaluating about how much depth the defensive line will have for the upcoming season.
Last year, Paul and Jones, both playing end positions, were two of the top 10 tacklers on the team and both finished among the team leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. Paul was a four-year starter at the bandit end position and was an outstanding player and leader. Last year as a senior despite missing two games with a knee injury, he finished with 56 tackles, six sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Jones finished with 43 tackles, five sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss.
"We're returning all our inside players so we should be solid there," said Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Line Coach Randy Butler, who is in his ninth year as the line coach and 14th season overall. "Terrance Ford came in and took the No. 1 tackle spot in the spring from Eric (Scott). I hope Eric will take this as a challenge and do what he needs to do and come ready to go in the preseason. Chad (Ruffin) was probably the most consistent on the line this spring. He is a fifth-year senior, knows what to do, knows how to play, a good leader and never makes a mental error. We're looking for him to have a good summer and lead us into the fall."
After returning from a shoulder injury as a sophomore, Ruffin (r-Sr.) started slowly but came on as the season progressed earning the starting position heading into the USF game and kept the job for the remainder of the season. He finished with 38 tackles, a quarterback sack, recovered a fumble and had 6.5 tackles for loss. He enjoyed a good spring season, being named the most improved defensive player, and is looking to build on that once the season starts in August.
Looking to add depth behind Ruffin will be Martavious Prince (r-Fr.). Prince suffered from an ankle injury during the spring which at times held him back. He is a smart player with a lot of tools which should translate into playing time for him. Also looking to add to the mix will be Jared Parten (r-So.), who has been hampered by injuries.
Ford (Jr.) entered the 2003 season as the starter at defensive tackle but lost it to Scott (Sr.) heading into the USF game. He kept working hard and showed improvement over the last half of the season and throughout the spring and now has earned back his starting spot. Last year, he finished with 30 tackles, one sack and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Eric Scott, a third-team all-conference selection, is big and strong and looks to take his play to a higher level for his senior season. He started all 13 games during the 2003 season and finished with 39 tackles, three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He had a season high six tackles at Alabama and at Houston and a season-high three tackles for loss against Nebraska.
Greg Casnave (r-So.) missed much of the spring with a neck injury, only participating in the final three practices. If he can get healthy and come back in shape and ready to go, he should battle for one of the starting tackle positions. He made an impact last season, playing in all 13 games and earning C-USA All-Freshman honors. He finished with 27 tackles, recovered a fumble and had a tackle for loss. He had three tackles against TCU and at East Carolina to close out the regular season.
At the defensive end position, Matthew Chatelain (r-Fr.) and junior college midyear transfer Tom Johnson will battle for the starting job.
Chatelain, a walk-on, joined the program during the 2003 fall and redshirted to build his strength and improve his skill level. He is a good run stopper, very explosive and has good technique. He worked hard and showed improvement throughout the season, and Butler believes he is going to be a good player once he learns the system and gains experience.
Johnson brings solid credentials with him from Gulf Coast Community College, but has to learn the system and needs to make the jump to this level. He is 6-4, 290 pounds and is strong which should aid in stopping the run. A two-year starter at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Perkinston, Miss., Johnson was a second-team All-NJCAA All-American and played in the Mississippi Junior College All-Star game. He finished with 50 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks and forced a fumble as a sophomore last year.
Competing for the starting position at the bandit end position will be Akeem Lockett (Jr.), Robert Henderson (r-Fr.), DeMarcus Barner (r-Sr.) and LeVon Pears (r-Sr.).
Due to injuries to Barner and Pears and with his improved play in the spring, Lockett came away with the starting job. He had a good spring but still needs to keep getting bigger and stronger in the offseason. Last year, he played in all 13 games and started two, finishing with 13 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. He saw a lot of time last year and should be able to make a valuable contribution this season.
Barner and Pears were both out during the spring with injuries - Barner with a shoulder injury and Pears had an appendectomy. Both have seen a lot of time in the program and once they get back to full strength will solidify the position.
Barner played in nine games last season and finished with nine tackles, and Pears played in all 13 games and started three of them. He finished with 23 tackles, including a sack and five tackles for loss. He finished with a season-high five tackles in one of his starts against Memphis. Robert Henderson (r-Fr.), who redshirted last season, will look to make a contribution this season. He has to continue working on his technique and learn to play with his hand on the ground. Butler said he is a talented player and is in the same mold of former Golden Eagle All-American Adalius Thomas.
"Once we get LeVon Pears and DeMarcus Barner back in the fall, it is going to help our depth. They were both backups last year, in fact they were both starters at one point and helped us win two conference games while Terrell Paul was out. We have a long way to go at that position."
"The summer is going to be important, especially for the guys playing the bandit end position," Butler said. "They need to get bigger, stronger and faster. They need to study tape and work with some of the position players to gain more experience. What they do on their own will make the difference once practice begins in August.
"Once we get the injured players back to full strength, we are going to be much better," Butler said. "I'm looking for Tom Johnson, Matt Chatelain, Robert Henderson and Martavious Prince to step up and push the others and make us a better unit."
This should be the strongest position for the Golden Eagles, as two of the three starters return and quality depth also is back. The only significant loss from last year's linebacker group is Davis, who was one of the top defensive players to ever play at Southern Miss.
However, All-American Michael Boley (r-Sr.) is returning to hold down the strong-side linebacker position, and Antoine Cash (r-Sr.) will look to start at the weak-side position for the second year. Veterans Dillon Clecker (r-Sr.) and Kevis Coley (r-Jr.) will battle for the starting job at middle linebacker. Naton Stewart (r-Jr.) and Carsha Stromas (Sr.) will add depth at the weak-side linebacker position and James Denley (r-Fr.) and John Archie (r-Jr.), who was moved from the free safety position in the spring will add depth and make the linebacker position the deepest position on the defense.
At the strong-side linebacker position, Boley returns as the starter for his third season. He was one of the top defensive players in Conference USA and one of the best linebackers in the nation. He finished with 151 total tackles, including 101 solo stops, 11 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He finished with double-figure tackles in 10 games last year, including a career-high 18 tackles at Cincinnati, which included a sack, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Denley had a good spring and looks for playing time this year and Archie is still getting accustomed to his new role but is athletic enough and has enough experience in the system to give help this year.
"Michael is a player that does the right things both mentally and physically," Outside Linebackers Coach Lytrel Pollard said. "I told him he has to be the best at whatever we as him to do. He has got to be the best pass rusher, lead us in tackles and this spring he did that. We knew when we needed to make a play, we could count on him to do that. The thing we keep challenging him with is to be a vocal leader on the field. As a senior, he will step forward and be the leader both on and off the field."
At the inside linebacker position, there is a strong battle between Cleckler and Kevis Coley. Both have experience in the system and have already made plays for the defense the past few seasons but now will have big shoes to fill left by Davis.
"Both Dillon Clecker and Kevis Coley are talented football players who are strong, can run and have experience," Nix said. "Dillon has been a backup to Rod Davis for several years and has really improved. He is a sound football player who has taken a lot of snaps at the position. Kevis was moved from the strong-side to the middle in the spring and this is more of a natural position for him. He has been impressive throughout the spring. It will be interesting to see who will get the starting job between him and Dillon."
Looking to add depth at the position will be Chaz Richards (r-Fr.), who is still learning the position and has a bright future ahead of him. Tyler Patterson (r-So.), John McMahan (r-Fr.) and Don Loehr (r-Fr.) look to add to the mix.
Antoine Cash looks to claim his starting job at the weak-side linebacker position for the second year but is being pushed hard by Stewart.
Cash has a lot of playmaking ability, and the coaching staff is looking for him to finish out his career with a good senior season. He was the fifth-leading tackler on the team last season, finishing with 74 tackles, including two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He also had a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups. He had a season-high nine tackles at Houston and finished with eight tackles against Nebraska.
Stewart is an intelligent player, who has good size and speed and looks to see a lot of playing time this season. He finished with 18 tackles last year, including 12 solo stops. Stromas and Kenneth Boley (r-So.) look to add depth this season. Stromas has been used extensively on special teams throughout his career and Kenneth Boley, a walk-on, has shown steady improvement.
This will be the biggest challenge for the coaching staff as all four starters are gone. However, there are quality players returning for them to fill the void with and to build depth from as well. First-year defensive backs coach Ron McCrone will have the task of teaching and coaching a completely new group of backs but brings a vast amount of experience at every level with him.
"We have a lot of young players in the secondary, especially at the cornerback positions, and we mixed and matched them during the spring trying to find the best fit," McCrone said. "The talent is back there to become a good secondary. There are holes to fill but all the players worked hard and showed improvement. The biggest thing is they have to adapt to a new way of coaching. I'm more of a technique guy and most of them saw that it works. I have to do a good job of coaching those players to understand offenses, so they understand where they need to be and why. I want four or five of the toughest players back there."
Gone from last year's secondary are some of the best defensive backs in the school's history. Two-time All-American Etric Pruitt was a three-year starter at the free safety position and made a lot of plays during his tenure. Last season, he finished with 132 tackles, five tackles for loss, three interceptions, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries and 10 pass breakups. Two-time All-Conference USA cornerback Greg Brooks is also gone. He holds the school record for pass breakups in a career (47) and finished with three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 12 pass breakups last season. Cornerback Corey Yates and all-conference rover Alex Ray are also gone.
Looking to lead the new group of defensive backs into the new season will be Trevis Coley (r-Jr.) at the free safety position and John Eubanks (r-Jr.) at the field cornerback position.
"Trevis is a player who improves every times he steps on the field," McCrone said. "He is a leader by action but needs to be more vocal. We need leaders back there to take charge and help bring these players along so that they work in sync with the linebackers, who will be the strength of this defense."
Coley was primarily used as a nickel back in the five defensive back set and proved to be a good cover back as well as good in run support. He finished as the team's fourth-leading tackler with 79 stops, a quarterback sack, three interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups. He had a season-high nine tackles at Cincinnati, eight tackles at East Carolina and seven against TCU.
Pierre Hutchins (r-Sr.) will make the transition from rover to the free safety position this season. He will add experienced depth as he was the backup at rover last year until an arm injury sidelined him from the Houston game throughout the remainder of the season. He also saw extensive time on special teams as well. He went through spring with a cast on his arm and should be back to full strength when the season begins. The coaching staff was impressed with his mental toughness during the spring.
At the rover position, there is a battle between Darrell Bennett (r-Jr.) and Jasper Faulk (r-So.). Bennett was moved from offense to the rover position during his sophomore season. He saw some action, finishing with 13 tackles. He redshirted during the 2003 season with a shoulder injury and is back to full strength. He showed a lot of improvement during the spring and looks to keep working hard and getting even better before fall.
Faulk is being moved from the cornerback position but the coaching staff wants to take advantage of his speed and ability in the open field. He saw limited action last season in the backfield but showed enough improvement during the spring that he looks to push Bennett for the starting job. He has outstanding speed and worked hard on his technique, but needs more experience.
At the field cornerback position, Eubanks emerged as the starter coming out of spring. He saw extensive time at the boundary cornerback position last year and made the move to the field corner in the spring. He has speed and proven cover ability but has to keep improving on his technique and show leadership to the younger members of the secondary. He finished with 31 tackles last season, including 21 solo stops, a quarterback sack and two interceptions. He recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown at Houston and returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown at East Carolina.
Looking to add depth will be James Nelson (r-Fr.). He has a lot of talent but needs to learn the system and gain experience.
Seth Cumbie (r-Sr.) was moved from field cornerback to the boundary cornerback position. He had a good spring and looks to be the starter when the preseason begins. Caleb Hendrix (So.) was moved from the receiver position to the boundary cornerback position during the spring and looks to contend for playing time.
Cumbie was a backup at the field cornerback position last year and also was used extensively on special teams. He finished with 20 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.
Hendrix has size and speed but lacks experience. The coaching staff was pleased with his improvement during the spring and says he has a lot of potential once he learns the system and gains more playing experience. Junior college transfer Howard Overby looks to add to the mix this season.
There was a lot of uncertainty about the special teams going in the 2003 fall season and it took a few games for the special teams to develop chemistry but once they did, they were a solid unit. All the specialists are back this year and look to develop more consistency and become even better.
"It's great that we have all our specialists returning this season," said Pollard, who is in his second year as the special teams coordinator. "Last year, we had a rough beginning of the season, trying to get everyone plugged in and get our snapping and kicking operation down but over the last seven games, we were a pretty good unit. I'm looking for this group to get even better this year and be a solid unit for this team."
Darren McCaleb (So.) returns as the starting kicker. He worked hard in the spring and increased his leg strength and distance. He had an outstanding freshman year and was named to a Sporting News Freshman All-American and to various conference all-freshman teams. He connected on 14-of-17 field goal attempts with a long kick of 47 yards and hit 31-of-32 extra point attempts. He hit eight in a row at one point and finished the year hitting 5-of-6. He finished No. 35 in the nation in field goals per game and No. 89 in scoring.
Luke Johnson (r-Jr.) returns as the starting punter after having a solid sophomore season. He averaged 42.1 yards per punt on 76 kicks with a long of 76 yards and placed 28 inside the opponents' 20-yard line. He worked hard on his leg strength, his distance, accuracy and consistency in the spring and seemed to show improvement. He was ranked No. 40 in the nation in punting average.
Honorable-mention All-American kickoff returner John Eubanks returns to claim his starting position. The first-team All-Conference USA selection finished No. 4 in the nation in kickoff yards per game, averaging 29.4 yards on 17 returns and had a long return of 94 yards for a touchdown at Cincinnati. He also had eight returns of 25 yards or more, five over 30 and a long return of 94 yards.
Honorable-Mention All-American punt returner Marvin Young returns to claim his starting position. The first-team All-Conference USA selection finished No. 10 in the nation in punt returns per game, averaging 13.6 yards on 33 returns and a had a long return of 87 yards for a touchdown against Memphis.
Stephen Daigle (So.) returns as the long snapper this season. He improved as the season progressed and looks to have an even better season this year. The kickoff position will be a battle between McCaleb and Johnson.