For most fans in the south, let's be honest.
There really are only three seasons, right? Football season, football recruiting season, and spring football season.
Southern Miss is in the middle of a basketball rebuild, and they have a lot going on over at Pete Taylor Park with the surge into the top 25. Today certainly begins an exciting time, however, as the football Eagles kick off their spring practice schedule today, their second under Coach Jay Hopson.
Last season, Coach Hopson took over in a complete whirlwind just before signing day and had only a few weeks to prepare for spring practice. Everyone commented on the remarkably smooth transition last spring, and that was in large part due to strong senior leadership as well as Hopson wanting to keep the offensive system largely similar. The defense, however, got a bit of a facelift and endured some struggles with the changeover.
This spring, there certainly is no shortage of story lines. Here are a few key things (and players) I'll be looking for in a very important practice season for the Southern Miss football program.
Who will emerge as the leaders?
Perhaps one of the most important reasons last season's transition was so smooth was everyone knew the team was led by senior quarterback Nick Mullens. Mullens had been a starter for four years, he was the vocal leader in the off-season as well as the guy that made everything click on the field. With a senior QB in place, everything else seemed to work itself out.
The offensive side is not the only unit that needs to find leadership, however. While no one man in particular was the leader of the defense, three key seniors and their on and off the field leadership must be replaced in Dylan Bradley, D'Nerius Antoine, and Elijah Parker. These three guys were the clear leaders, and graduation has left more voids and opportunities for others to step up.
With Mullens graduated and trying to work his way into the NFL, the hole that #9 left must be filled. On offense, the ball is clearly passed to rising senior Ito Smith. The running back will be just like Mullens, a four year starter who even started the very first game of his college career against Mississippi State. Ito is a quiet leader, one who is not nearly as vocal as Nick Mullens, but he knows the burden rests on his shoulders and he'll be looked upon to provide that leadership for the USM offense.
Smith shouldn't be alone though. Leadership on the offensive line must emerge too with the loss of a few key interior linemen and center Cameron Tom. Devin Farrior certainly will have a lot of linemen looking his way, and he knows he'll have to shoulder a lot of the leadership. The biggest loss will be Tom and his connection with Mullens at the Center position.
The WR core returns one of the biggest surprises of last season in Allenzae Staggers.
Staggers put up video game numbers as a JuCo transfer last season, and with a new QB coming on board, he must lead the way- and he's prepared to do so- with the wide receivers. For the offense certainly Ito is the face of the offense, but with a new quarterback he'll need help. A quiet leader, he's certainly capable of taking on more of a vocal role.
On the defensive side there must be more of a leadership by committee. Will there be that one guy to take this group and say what needs to be said? Who makes the critical tackle when the team needs a lift and a huge third down stop? Southern Miss will be losing their top two tacklers from a year ago.
Fortunately, the Eagles have some candidates and talent ready to emerge.
Here are a few candidates: At LB, could Sherrod Ruff be the man? He certainly showed flashes last season. The rising senior is a good fit in the system and he appears to have all the tools to really break out. Xavier Thigpen is another on the defensive line who will be counted on. He is another one with all the physical tools and he's been around Southern Miss long enough to have respect from his teammates. Is he ready for that role?
Also, to name a few more, Darian Yancey, LaDarius Harris, and Picasso Nelson all have experience and leadership qualities. I'll be looking for all three of these guys to play a major vocal leadership role. Harris is a guy who showed flashes of being a great defensive linemen even as a true freshmen. He'll anchor the D-line this season. Yancey has a world of ability, and is well respected by the team as well because of his work ethic and "do whatever the team needs me to do" attitude.
Paging Isaiah Jones...
Isaiah Jones will be one guy I'll be watching closely this spring. In the opening game against Kentucky, the talented wide receiver seemed to emerge as the big play guy for Nick Mullens and the Eagles. Somewhere through the middle of the season, however, Jones seemed to lose his way (or confidence), and never was able to be that contributor that the staff hoped and needed him to be. Talent is not an issue. Jones is long, fast, and explosive. He dropped some passes and seemed to lose his focus last season. I'm ready to see if this can be the year Jones has the type of year everyone knows he can have. Southern Miss needs him to find his confidence, and here is to hoping this spring is a big one for him.
I'm curious to see if Southern Miss can capitalize off the momentum from the end of last season. Let's be honest. From the second half of the game against Kentucky, the Golden Eagles weren't able to put together a complete game of their best football until Louisiana Tech came rolling into town the final week. That game, it just all clicked. Offense, defense, and special teams came together and Southern Miss rolled over a good Tech team that would go on to represent the west in the C-USA title game. It was a game that showed everyone what USM can be, and that momentum carried over into a Bowl win and overall winning season.
Momentum is a powerful thing. Southern Miss will try and use the strong finish and excellent signing day results to their favor as they seek to come together as a team to continue to build. Transition is hard, and the Golden Eagles have been through more then their fair share in the past 10 seasons or so. That Louisiana Tech victory might just end up being one of the most important in the Jay Hopson era as head football coach at Southern Miss.
Who emerges at safety?
One of the key losses from a year ago is at the safety position, where USM will start the spring pretty thin. I'll be interested to see if they make some moves to shuffle some guys around and try back there. Picasso Nelson was moved from CB to safety a year ago, and seemed to make a pretty nice transition. The staff was looking for some JuCo help, but none really emerged in the class of 2017. Can Walden Davis step up and provide more depth? What about Kelsey Douglas, who was thrust into early playing time as a true freshman. Southern Miss will try and replace do it all safety Antoine as well as Devonta Foster from a year ago. This spot, in my opinion, will be one of the biggest areas to watch in the spring.
Is QB Keon Howard's job to lose?
The most obvious question of the spring, I believe, is if the staff will be ready to name Keon Howard as the starter after the spring.
Last season, Howard was thrust into a difficult situation as a true freshman. Attempting to handle all the responsibilities of a college quarterback just a year removed from graduating high school is tough on anyone. Those few games he was able to see action allowed him to get a taste of what he'll face. Now, the spotlight turns to him. Howard has the tools that Coach Dawson is looking for as the guy to run his offense. He can really run (seeing Ito and Keon in the backfield is exciting to think about), and he has a strong arm. He's smart, a hard worker (he was often seen last season to be the last guy in the film room) and has leadership qualities to lead this team.
Howard will compete with Kwadra Griggs and Willie Greene (walk-on) to try and take a lead for the starting job. I'll be interested to see if Howard can emerge enough to clearly take the reigns, or if the battle will continue into fall camp. If Howard can show he can take care of the ball and make the correct reads, he'll be the man. This will be the top story line of the upcoming spring.
Can the defense continue to adjust to the new scheme?
There was some issues last season with the defense and giving up big plays. The Golden Eagle scheme took longer than expected to pick up, and the result was an odd blend of looking good at times and then giving up huge plays. The inconsistencies of a change in scheme are to be expected. By year two, the defense hopes to have these ironed out and steps made toward limiting those big plays and creating turnovers. That will start up front, where Southern Miss is losing a key piece in Dylan Bradley.
More than talent issues, the staff will be looking to make sure the players are finding themselves in the right place at the right time. Players over pursuing and getting caught out of position seemed to be a major issue last season. This spring, I'll be looking to see if those issues can be corrected. When done right, this aggressive, attacking scheme can be a thing of beauty. When done wrong, huge plays are the result. The staff will be looking for consistency. So will we.
How quickly can the newcomers adjust?
Southern Miss brought in Justus Satterfield, Delmond Landry, Woodlyson Alcius, and Trevor Terry during the early signing period last December. Landry adds much needed depth to the defensive line, and Satterfield will compete right away on the offensive line.
Alcius has some work to do in the weight room and is already getting after it. These months of work will be critical to his development. Trevor Terry didn't get as much publicity playing for a run heavy JCJC team, but he can provide another target for the QB's with his sure hands and solid route running. The spring is always the time to see how the newcomers can fit in and usually will show if they will be contributors in the fall. All these guys, save Alcius, will be counted on to contribute right away. We are eager to find out how they'll do.