Southern Miss earned the label of “Linebacker U” in Conference USA after producing the likes of Michael Boley, Rod Davis and Gerald McRath — all C-USA Defensive Players of the Year.
A Golden Eagle won C-USA’s top defensive honor in eight of the first 14 years, but it’s been a while since it last happened — McRath in 2007.
The next USM linebacker to pick up a plaque may be the youngest starter on this year’s defense — redshirt freshman Racheem Boothe.
“I read about it and heard about all the linebackers that have come through here,” Boothe said. “I’m going to keep working and hopefully and I can be one of those guys.”
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The 6-foot, 215-pound Boothe has made an immediate impact on the USM defense this season, tallying 14 tackles to rank third on the team along with three tackles for lost yardage and one sack.
It’s his first season of college football, but Boothe has played well beyond his years.
“Last year, toward the end of the year, he really started to come on,” USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “But it was so late I didn’t want to ruin his year (by pulling his redshirt). He had a really good spring and a really good fall camp. He’s smart, he’s tough. Another one of those Bassfield kids who knows how to win. He’s taken advantage of his opportunities and every week he continues to get better. So he’s got a big career ahead of him, for sure.”
Much like Pecoraro, Boothe’s high school head coach at Bassfield, Lance Mancuso, was quickly aware that he had a special young linebacker on his hands.
“He was an incredible talent from the very beginning,” Mancuso said. “He was kind of shy and didn’t like the leadership role or the spotlight for a long time. He kind of played in the shadows of A.J. Moore and C.J. Moore (now defensive backs at Ole Miss), but we knew he was special from early on.”
‘Making them regret’
USM, which started recruiting Boothe in 10th grade, was the first school to offer a scholarship to Boothe and Memphis was the only other program to follow through with an offer. Ole Miss and Mississippi State expressed interest, but ultimately didn’t pull the trigger on an offer.
The fact that he was snubbed by larger programs still sticks with Boothe.
“That’s one of my main things. I’m making them regret it,” he said. “I’ve got a big chip on my shoulder to prove myself.”
With the USM football team off to a 2-1 start, Boothe has been taking that frustration out on ball carriers with some of the hardest hits dished out by Golden Eagle defenders this season. If Boothe gets a good angle on the ball carrier, chances are he’ll get his man on the ground. He’s also going to make it hurt if he gets good leverage.
“He’s probably one of the best tacklers to come through here,” Mancuso said. “He worked on his technique every day and he took pride in getting better.”
Mancuso has been to Roberts Stadium this season to watch Boothe and four other former players of his from Bassfield who are seeing significant time at USM. He walked away impressed by the play of Boothe.
“He’s just playing with his hair on fire,” Mancuso said. “Man, it looks like he’s grown 3 inches since he got there. He really looks like he’s enjoying playing. I’m thankful the staff there gave him a chance.”
Boothe has the respect of his older teammates, including redshirt senior Xavier Thigpen.
“He’s quick, smart, fast, can think on the fly,” Thigpen said. “Boothe, he’s a dynamic player. He brings energy to the defense.”
The USM defense is off to an outstanding start and ranked sixth in the nation in total defense, allowing 241.3 yards a game. The addition of Boothe to the mix has provided much needed speed in the linebacking corps.
“We’re faster this year and we’re more responsible to our (assignments),” Boothe said. “Our whole defense is fast and as athletic as can possibly be.”
The USM defense may face its toughest challenge yet at 6 p.m. on Saturday when it plays host to North Texas, a 2-2 team that leads C-USA in points per game (37.8) and total yardage (504.0).
“They’re a pretty good team,” Boothe said. “I’ve seen that they have athletes everywhere. They have great receivers on the outside. For us to stop them, we’re going to have to play our responsibilities, stop the run and be physical with them.”
The physical part will come easily for Boothe.
Who: North Texas vs. Southern Miss
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: 104.9 FM