Keon Howard and Kwadra Griggs, the two players battling to be the next Southern Miss quarterback, each dealt with their own forms adversity during the 2016 season at USM.
Howard was thrust onto the field as a true freshman after Nick Mullens and Parker Adamson went down with injuries for a couple of games late in the season. Though he showed glimpses of great talent at times, turnovers proved to be an issue. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Howard threw for a total of four interceptions and lost five fumbles in the two games he started — a 51-35 loss at Old Dominion and a 29-23 defeat at North Texas.
After Griggs left the 2016 spring game as the likely No. 2 quarterback behind Mullens, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior college transfer was ruled academically ineligible when fall camp arrived.
Howard was put on the field before he was ready, and Griggs had to watch from the sideline.
As spring practice comes to a close with Saturday’s noon game at Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg, USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is upbeat about how both players have responded following a bumpy 2016.
“If you look at Keon, he got thrown into the fire,” Dawson said. “He struggled against Old Dominion, but he battled. We were within 7 points toward the end and it just snowballed.”
As for Griggs, Dawson has seen a more mature approach.
“He’s got A’s and Bs now. He’s knocking it out of the park in the classroom. He learned his lesson,” Dawson said. “Both guys are tough and very motivated. It’s a good problem to have with both quarterbacks competing at the same level. Both have been playing really good. They’ve eliminated basic errors.”
The two players have many of the same attributes, bringing athleticism Mullens didn’t offer.
“They’re probably a little more similar than they are different,” Dawson said. “Both have unbelievable arm talent. Both of them have the ability to tuck it in and do good things. They’re both knowledgeable of the game. They have a high football IQ. They’re up here doing the right things. They have to not get frustrated with the process.”
Their performances seesawed back and forth during the spring, but they graded out almost identically in a recent scrimmage.
Dawson describes the two quarterbacks as “neck and neck” headed into Saturday’s spring game.
Another player who has shined during the spring has been senior receiver Isaiah Jones, who played well early last season, but suffered from a bad case of the drops in the second half of the season.
Jones, a transfer from East Mississippi CC, was demoted late in the season and failed to register a catch in the final four games. He finished with 20 catches for 331 yards and two scores, including a 71-yarder in the season opener at Kentucky.
“He’s a kid that’s been making a lot of plays,” Dawson said. “You can tell he’s playing with a certain level of confidence that he hasn’t had. To be fair to him, it takes kids a year. I’ve never been in a situation where a kid out of high school or junior college didn’t have a learning curve. That’s true with him.
“It’s just a maturation at that position. There’s no substitute for experience and reps.”
Running back depth
There’s no question as to who is at the top of the depth chart at running back with Ito Smith back for his senior year. He rushed 265 times for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns and caught 43 passes for 459 yards and two scores.
Redshirt senior George Payne proved a solid backup with 103 rushes for 496 yards and two touchdowns, but he’s been pushed this spring by redshirt junior Tez Parks.
“Tez has had one of better springs of anybody we’ve got,” Dawson said. “He’s really playing well.”
The speedy Parks, who stands 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, rushed 34 times for 171 yards last season, appearing in 12 games.
Southern Miss will open the 2017 season with a 3 p.m. home game Sept. 2 against Kentucky, the first out-of-state SEC opponent to ever play a game in Hattiesburg.