Over the next week or so, GoldenEaglePride.com will be taking a look back at selected positions, then looking ahead to what we might expect in spring practice. First up, we take an inside look at the running backs.
About this time last season, the departure of Jalen Richard and Justice Hayes signaled a clear changing of the guard at the running back position. The burden fell squarely on the shoulders of Ito Smith, who was finishing up his sophomore season. While there was no question who would become the main ball carrier, the new question was if Ito was up to the challenge to take it fully. While he had experience, he hadn't yet been the man.
It didn't take long to realize that Ito Smith relished the moment. He knew, from the spring, that he'd get the bulk of the carries (that was even before the Patrick Brooks injury), and he prepared his body for it in the off-season. Ito put on about 15 pounds heading into the fall and was ready to run inside and outside. Quiet off the field, Smith was a force on it this season. With the change of direction of Damion Fletcher, and the acceleration of Tracey Lampley, Ito dashed his way to 1,459 yards on 265 carries. He also led the team with 17 TD's. His long last season was a run of 86 yards.
Ito Smith, although flashy, never brought that style to practice and games. In a season of a lot of inconsistencies on both offense and defense, Ito was a steady rock that could be counted on to produce. And produce, he did.
The good news for Southern Miss is that Ito will be back for another season, and the once face of the offense Nick Mullens turns over that role to Ito Smith. Smith will be a steady force for the new QB, whether it be Keon Howard or someone else. Senior Ito Smith becomes the clear leader of the offense next season.
Beyond that, things could get interesting.
George Payne will be back after a season in which he bounced back well from a terrible injury where he was lost for his sophomore season. He'll be a senior next year and has proven he is a perfect change of pace back. George was everything the Eagles hoped for last season, giving the offense some punch and interior running. He came in with fresh legs and a determined mindset.
Payne rushed for 496 yards on 103 carries. He also had 2 TD's. He ran with a chip on his shoulder, and with another year of recovery and in the weight room, he will be a senior that will probably get even more opportunity next season. The Eagles even showed both Payne and Smith in the backfield at the same time last season, something I'd expect to see more of in the fall from this dynamic duo.
Also returning will be rising Junior Tez Parks. Parks was the third back and didn't see a whole lot of action other than mop up duty, but he certainly can continue to develop and work his way into the mix with a solid showing in the spring. Parks needs to continue to add some weight and muscle, and he has the tools to make a difference on the field next season.
Perhaps one of the biggest disappoints of the year came from the injury to Patrick Brooks that kept him out all season. Brooks was raved about by Coach Monken's staff, and made a huge impression while being redshirted as a freshman. Before his injury, Brooks possessed break away speed. He had the ability to take it to the house any time he touched the ball. The question now is how will Patrick be able to come back from his injury? We probably won't know the answer to that question until the spring, maybe even the summer. He's been working hard in his rehab and has done everything he needs to do to get back. It just remains to be seen the type of player he'll be post injury. He will certainly be an early story line heading into the spring.
Andre Hale took a redshirt season after signing with the Eagles last February. The freshman has really good speed and explosion, and will be one to watch in the spring, especially if Brooks is unable to make a full comeback.
In our way to early category, Darius Maberry will be a future star with the Eagles if he keeps his commitment and signs with Southern Miss in February. He told GoldenEaglePride.com he will not be enrolling early in January. Ideally, he'd have a year to develop as a redshirt, but as the situation with Keon Howard showed us, you never know what you might face in a season.
Regardless, USM will be loaded at the running back position next season. This is a great sign with a new QB and interior offensive line. The Eagles will have three, maybe four steady backs they can absolutely count on heading into next fall.