Entering the 2017 season, the Southern Miss football team may have one of the most uncertain fates in Conference USA.
The pieces are there at receiver and running back. On defense, USM features some of the best corners in the conference and defensive ends who can get after the quarterback.
However, there is one question that outweighs all other concerns: Who will be the starting quarterback?
USM head coach Jay Hopson and a pair of his top seniors, running back Ito Smith and cornerback Cornell Armstrong, addressed the media on Thursday during C-USA media days in Irving, Texas.
Hopson was quickly quizzed on where things stand at quarterback following the graduation of Nick Mullens, the program’s all-time leading passer.
The battle entering fall camp will be between sophomore Keon Howard and redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs.
“We tried to redshirt Keon (in 2016), but we had to pull the shirt,” Hopson said during a live stream of the event. “Keon had good numbers, got in and produced. It was great to have him come in, get games under his belt and play. We had Kwadra Griggs back in the spring.
“That’s a position battle that is still ongoing. Leaving the spring, I don’t know who our starter is. That battle will go through August. We’ll find out who rises to to the top.”
Plenty of talent
With the vast majority of the other skill position players back, USM has a chance to put up points in Shannon Dawson’s second season as offensive coordinator.
Led by Smith and his 1,459 yards rushing a year ago, USM returns every running back who touched the ball last season, including redshirt senior George Payne and redshirt junior Tez Parks.
Smith is the only active player in FBS who has over 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving.
Senior Allenzae Staggers leads the receiving corps after catching 63 passes for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
While USM will continue to work with many of the same players at receiver and running back this season, Hopson has seen a difference in that group.
“At running back and receiver, we’re a faster football team than we were last year,” Hopson said. “I see the speed on this football team. Last year, I didn’t know if we were that fast. We’re fast this year. We really are.”
When Hopson is talking about a faster team, he is likely alluding to the addition of players like redshirt freshman receiver Quez Watkins and Long Beach native Trevor Terry, a sophomore receiver out of Jones County Junior College.
New faces on defense
USM has to find a way to prevent big plays on defense. Opposing offenses managed to break for big gains on numerous occasions, especially on the ground.
“We’ve just got to go out there and eliminate big plays,” said Armstrong, a Bassfield native. “Coach Hop coaches that. After the season, we watched film and he told us that if we eliminated those big plays we could be the No. 1 team in the country.”
It will be up to a mostly experienced defensive line and a young batch of linebackers to prevent running backs from breaking into the next level.
USM will be breaking in a new middle linebacker, but redshirt junior Jeremy Sangster and redshirt freshman Racheem Boothe showed the potential of providing a significant upgrade at that position.
Senior Sherrod Ruff and redshirt sophomore Walden Davis, a converted defensive back, will look to claim the top spot at strongside linebacker.
“We’ve got some young guys there,” Hopson said. “We’re young, but talented. We’re younger but we’re faster. If you look at the guys we have, we’ve got some guys inside that can really run at linebacker. Our safeties have really good speed. We’re youthful, but there is talent there.”
Despite replacing both of the team’s starting linebackers from a year ago, Armstrong doesn’t seem very concerned about that area.
“We’ve got some ballers coming up,” he said. “We’ve got some young guys ready to play ball and step up.”
USM will open the 2017 season at 3 p.m. on Sept. 2 against Kentucky in Hattiesburg for a rematch of last year’s 44-35 win by USM in Lexington.
Both Smith and Armstrong shied away from expressing their excitement about facing an SEC team in Hattiesburg for the season opener.
“I’m looking forward to it.” Armstrong said. “You can’t take anybody lightly.”
Hopson and company kept up their recent success of recruiting the Hattiesburg area on Wednesday.
Hattiesburg senior quarterback/athlete Dandre Humbles announced on Twitter that he has verbally committed to the Golden Eagles.
Humbles, who also holds an offer from Mississippi State, caught 47 passes for 832 yards and 12 touchdowns last season for Hattiesburg. He is set to take over as the Hattiesburg quarterback this season.
Two other Hub City area seniors have already committed to the Golden Eagles for the class of 2018 – Hattiesburg linebacker William Robinson and Oak Grove linebacker Hayes Maples.
What: Jay Hopson and players will attend Southern Miss’ Beach Bash
When: 6 p.m., Friday
Where: Hard Rock Casino and Hotel, Biloxi
Tickets: $15 per person, $7 for children ages 12 and under