Though the 2015 season for Southern Miss ended on a losing note, no Golden Eagle fan would consider the season anything less than a success considering where the program had to recover from just a few years ago.
For the players, however, simply making to a championship game and a bowl game wasn't enough. In fact, the desire to not only get back to that championship game, but to win it, has served as fuel to the fire for the off season work-outs this summer.
It all starts with Coach Zac Woodfin and his organization, education, drive, and desire he has instilled in now his 2nd summer with the program. Make no mistake about it, his strength and conditioning staff remaining in place was a key to the smooth transition in the spring with a new head Coaching staff, as well as the continued growth the players have made in their own conditioning, strength, and speed.
With only a few weeks left before the start of fall camp, the Golden Eagles have been gearing up for a potentially special season by remaining focused on getting better one day at a time.
“I feel the transition from spring to summer went very smooth and we’ve been progressing well from the end of the bowl game," Coach Woodfin told GoldenEaglePride.com.
"We reset our focus on what we want to do in 2016 and are pushing toward that goal ever since and we’ve been progressing really well.”
In the winter, the staff tried something new by moving to a more specified work out tailored to the developmental level of the player himself. The move put players into introduction groups, intermediate groups, and elite groups based on their level of development in the program.
This summer, they added even another layer to that.
“It has been similar but we have added even more specificity to that," Woodfin explained.
"We have broken it down to more specific groups too. All of our offensive and defensive linemen train in the same group then the guys within that group may be more advanced. All the freshmen or JuCo transfers are completely separated at 6:15. O and D line in their different groups work out at 6:15, also separated.
"Then we have our middle skill guys, and our speed guys, advanced skill group. We have gotten even a little more specific with it. Different programs for each group and its been working really well.”
The specific plans and education of the players are having its effect. The Golden Eagles have laid the building blocks for a tremendous season, in addition, because of the major focus on getting back to what has always made Southern Miss who they are: Grit and determination.
Woodfin gets it. As a former player at UAB, he knows things are never simply handed out.
“I’ve been really proud of our leaders and we’ve seen new leaders evolving," Woodfin said.
"I’m not having to do near as much in terms of accountability and it is now coming from within the team. If a guy is not giving max effort then the other guys are getting into him. They are staying positive and saying that we have more to give and you have to finish this thing. That is a part of culture. Every day is a continuous fight to sharpen that culture.
"We want a culture that is humble, hungry, and mentally tough. Every day is a fight to maintain that because it can slip easily if you become lax or arrogant even the least bit. It takes the leaders at the top striving for more and wanting more than we got last year and wanting to be champions.”
It is this culture that has always been the Southern Miss way. As satisfying as a trip to the conference championship game and a trip to Dallas for a bowl game was for the Golden Eagle players, the major fuel of motivation for this off-season has been the thought that those were just part of the goals. Coach Woodfin has instilled in these players that anything is possible, and there is only one way to get there.
“Our kids value hard work," Woodfin said.
"They are preparing so well. What I always tell them is that ‘you don’t always know how much they are preparing or working so you have to leave no doubt that you did more. You have to go to sleep at night knowing that there is no possible way Marshall or Kentucky did more than that. What that will do is give them even more confidence.
“That goes for all of us. I told them at the beginning we have to all find a way to do a little bit better and give a little bit more. I told them I have to find a way to train them better and do our nutrition a little bit better. It is on all of us to do it better than we have before. Me and my staff have been trying to model that, and they have seen this summer’s program has been a lot different than last year’s."
Even a former player noticed the difference this year.
"Jalen Richard came back to work out with us and he said. ‘Coach this is completely different than last summer and you’ve taken it to another level.’ I told him, ‘we have to, we didn’t accomplish our goals," Woodfin explained.
"It is never the same approach, you always have to keep improving and keep getting better and evaluate how we can gain every advantage possible. We have to take the next step. What is it going to take for all of us to get it done?”
Whatever it will take, make no mistake about it, Zac Woodfin will not rest until it does get done. With fall camp looming on the horizon, the Eagles will come in bigger, stronger, and faster than ever. The difference this year? They just might be hungrier for more than ever too.