1. It's been a tumultuous offseason for the Southern Miss program -- how do you feel about the current state of the team?
Despite the painful loss to UTSA last week, there is a great deal of excitement for this season and hope for the future. Most of that centers on the hiring of Jay Hopson as head coach. Hopson is a hard-working and genuinely classy leader. He was hired in January and he is the perfect fit for the Golden Eagles. He was a former assistant coach at USM, his daughters were born in Hattiesburg, and his wife couldn't wait to get back to the city that the Hopson's feel is home. He couldn't be a better fit for Southern Mississippi — and, he might just be a "lifer" in Hattiesburg.
2. The Golden Eagles have put up some very impressive numbers on offense. What can you tell me about their style on that side of the ball?
Southern Miss runs a balanced-spread style of offense that enables quarterback Nick Mullens to read the defense and take advantage of what he sees. When coach Hopson came to USM, the balanced-spread was already in place and working well and by continuing it, offensive players have had little adjustment. The interior line is led by all conference center Cameron Tom who is a Rimington Award candidate and a high pro prospect. Both guards return and the Golden Eagles have been able to get top-10 running back Ito Smith loose up the middle quite effectively. And, even though George Payne is not a starter, he ranks in the top half of the nation's highest-producing running backs. The passing attack has been explosive with the emergence or receiver Allenzae Staggers who is averaging more than 24 yards per reception and scores a touchdown once in every four catches. He fast, athletic, and catches nearly everything he touches. The problem has been interceptions which is sad to say because Mullens is loved at Southern Miss and he has worked very hard to transform from a high school quarterback with almost no FBS offers to being named to there preseason watch lists in 2016.
3. Name some players that LSU fans should familiarize themselves with.
Placekicker Parker Shaunfield has been a great surprise for the Golden Eagles hitting all ten of his field goal attempts and half of those have been longer than 40 yards.
4. Defensively, the Eagles have been a little more up and down, but held four out of six opponents to respectable yardage totals. What's the story there?
It's a problem I've been writing about all season. Just like last year, Southern Mississippi starts games like its half-asleep, especially on defense. Except, the problem is much worse this year.
Last week with less than five minutes played, UTSA was up 21-0 and had two plays longer than 70 yards.
It's led me to wonder if there are some commitment or communication issues on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive players don't seem ready to play when the game begins, but when its halftime and peril is upon them, they come together and play very well — and sometimes, extremely well.
Also, defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro came with Hopson from Alcorn State where they played a hyper-aggressive style of defense and I'm not convinced that USM has the size to attack that much.
Hopson will solve this problem, but until he does, Southern Mississippi is at-risk against all opponents regardless of win-loss records or rankings.
5. Any players to watch on that side of the ball?
Dylan Bradley. This defensive lineman is critical for Southern Miss to stop any opponent. He missed some time two weeks ago because of an ankle injury and his loss was immediately apparent. Bradley is a 6-1 defensive lineman who was All-CUSA in 2015. He leads the team in total tackles and already has posted five sacks.
A name your fans might already know is D'Nerius Antoine from New Iberia, LA. Antoine is a combination safety-linebacker and the word "beast" has often been associated with him. He is not big in size (6-0, 215), but he plays with incredible aggression. Because USM moves him around, it is sometimes difficult for opposing blockers to find him. It's amazing how often when the whistle blows a play dead, Antoine is right there.
Xavier Thigpen is a 6-5 defensive end who leads the team in quarterback hurries. He will be coming from LSU's left side with the speed and agility that gives offensive tackles fits.
6. Southern Miss has one of the proudest traditions among mid-major programs in this region, and have pulled their share of upsets in the past. What will this team's mentality be coming into Tiger Stadium on Saturday?
That is the one characteristic that describes head coach Jay Hopson and Southern Mississippi football.
And keep in mind, this team already has one SEC victim in its showcase. I know — Kentucky is not yet up to SEC norms, but the components of that win are noteworthy.
1. It was the first game of the season and with an entirely new coaching staff.
2. It was a road game to an SEC site.
3. Kentucky was ahead 35-10 at halftime.
Yet, the Golden Eagles buckled their chin straps, narrowed their eyes, and posted 34 straight points to win the game.
Southern Miss won't back down. It's getting started that's in question.