By Jerry Briggs
Wide receiver Allenzae Staggers grew up in southwestern Mississippi, in Woodville, near the Louisiana border.
He attended junior college in the northeastern part of the state, in Scooba, a few long spirals from the Alabama state line.
Now that he’s found his way to Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, a little more than an hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico, Staggers has suddenly appeared on the radar of the UTSA Roadrunners.
“I took a look at the scouting report and (saw) he was averaging 28 yards a catch,”’ UTSA safety Nate Gaines said earlier this week. “I’m like, ‘How is that possible?’ ”
It’s possible when an opportunistic player such as Staggers catches three touchdown passes covering 75 yards or more on one afternoon.
In only his fifth career outing for the Golden Eagles, the speedster hauled in TD receptions of 75, 81 and 93 yards from quarterback Nick Mullens in a 44-28 victory over Rice last week.
One week later, UTSA (1-3, 0-1) will try to cool off Staggers and Southern Miss (4-1, 2-0) in a Conference USA matchup set for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Alamodome.
Slowing down the Golden Eagles won’t be an easy task. Mullens threw for 591 yards in leading the team to a school-record 702 yards of offense against the Owls.
“I take it as a challenge,” Gaines said. “I take it as excitement. That just means they’re going to throw … and that just gives us more chances to put our hands on the ball and really just diminish those big plays that they’ve been having.
“It’s going to be interesting to see, the plays we can make,” added Gaines. “I believe we can make ‘em. You know, we’re not going to be intimidated by any team, by any receiver, by any quarterback. We’re just going to go out there and get the job done.”
The two programs provide a study in contrasts on a number of levels.
Southern Miss is playing in its 100th year of football, while UTSA is in its sixth. UTSA operates in a metro area with nearly 1.9 million people, while Southern Miss is based in Hattiesburg, with a population of about 46,000.
Both share some commonalities, as well, including heartbreak on the gridiron.
Southern Miss strung together 18 winning seasons in a row, including its first 16 as a member of C-USA, before enduring a painful 0-12 crash in 2012. That started a dispiriting three-year run at 4-32.
UTSA, emerging with surprising success in its football infancy, has fallen on hard times of late, posting an 8-20 record since 2014.
But with UTSA still scuffling, Southern Miss seems to have turned the corner.
“They’re a fantastic football team, in all three phases,” first-year UTSA coach Frank Wilson said.
Former Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken is credited with rebuilding the talent base. The Golden Eagles finished 1-11 in his first year in 2013 and then 3-9 in 2014.
Last year, the team surged to a 9-5 record, won the C-USA West division title and claimed an appearance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Not even Monken’s offseason departure to become offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has slowed the momentum.
Under first-year coach Jay Hopson, the Golden Eagles won on opening day with a stirring 44-35 victory at Kentucky.
Observers insist that Southern Miss has continued to win under the new staff because of a stockpile of returning talent and the steady leadership of Hopson, who worked the past four seasons as head coach at Alcorn State.
“The new staff didn’t come in and try to fix something that wasn’t broke,” said Southern Miss radio color commentator Lee Roberts, a former Golden Eagles quarterback. “Obviously we had some great success last year, and then we were able to keep two coaches from that previous staff. But, yes, I think coach Hopson has done a great job.”
Monken’s departure also had ramifications in San Antonino.
First, Pete Golding left Southern Miss to become defensive coordinator at UTSA under Wilson, who had replaced Larry Coker.
Next, wide receiver and Mississippi native Marquez McNair flipped his commitment, turned away from the Golden Eagles and joined Wilson and Golding with the Roadrunners in San Antonio.
But even with the loss of McNair, who has started and played well for UTSA, the Southern Miss offense has sizzled, averaging a C-USA best 41.8 points and 527.2 yards (second to Middle Tennessee).
Part of the reason for the production is Staggers, formerly of East Mississippi Community College, who torched the Owls last week with the three long touchdowns.
“Every program is different, but (the Golden Eagles) are within a five-hour radius of some of the best junior college football in the country, even within their state,” said Wilson, who coached one year at Southern Miss in 2008. “Whether it’s Northeast Mississippi, Pearl River (or) Itawamba, they’re all as close (to Hattiesburg) as 30 minutes and as far away as five hours. The opportunity to get those young men has proved (to be) successful for them.”
Taking the same approach at UTSA, Wilson wants in the long-term to recruit the local area hard and also mine the rich bases of talent in Dallas and Houston.
But in contrast to Hopson’s situation at Southern Miss, Wilson faced a much bigger challenge at UTSA.
At Southern Miss, Hopson walked in to find a confident locker room led by Mullens, a pro prospect, who was ready to roll in his senior year.
Wilson, by contrast, is rolling with a team coming off records of 4-8 and 3-9. Junior quarterback Dalton Sturm, a former walk-on, has been hot and cold so far this season.
Saddled with consecutive losses to Colorado State, Arizona State and Old Dominion, the Roadrunners found some relief in an open date last weekend.
Several key players who had suffered minor injuries used the time off to heal and are expected to return to the field against the Golden Eagles.
Wilson expects a much better effort than the one displayed in his team’s last outing, a 33-19 conference-opening loss at Old Dominion on Sept. 24.
“At the end of the day, we have to look at the man in the mirror, reflect on ourselves and see the things that we need to do, to allow UTSA to be the best we can be,” Wilson said. “If we’re as good as we can be, we like our chances.”