HATTIESBURG — If you saw a Southern Miss defensive lineman taking aim at an opposing quarterback last season, it might have been Dylan Bradley.
That’s because, in 2016, the Golden Eagle defensive end led the team with 6.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries and had 12.5 tackles for loss.
Bradley will be back at Southern Miss this season, taking aim at Kentucky’s quarterback in the season opener on Sept. 3, and he’s expected to be the centerpiece of the defensive line.
But where on that defensive line he’ll be is something of a mystery.
“My role on the D-line could change weekly,” said the 6-foot-1, 265-pound star. “I could be a (tackle) one week, I could be an end the next week or I could be the nose. I’m versatile. I can play all three positions. My weight and my speed allows me to do that.”
Four years ago at Noxubee County High School, Bradley was a defensive end, and he helped his team to a 16-0 record and the Class 4A state championship. He was named the Class 4A Most Valuable Defensive Player.
But now he’s a senior at Southern Miss, playing for both a new head coach (Jay Hopson) and a new defensive coordinator (Tony Pecoraro).
“It’s now or never,” Bradley said. “This year, you’re either going to win it all or you’re going to let it pass you by.
“Coach Hop says you get what you deserve. You go out there and practice all week like you don’t want it, then you’re going to lose. You go out there and practice like you want it, you’ve got a good chance of winning.”
While the focus in college football these days is on the offense, Bradley likes the emphasis that Hopson has put on the Golden Eagle defense.
“Coach Hop, he’s been here before,” Bradley said. “He knows what it takes to be part of Southern Miss, to be part of the Nasty Bunch. We’re preaching, ‘Be tough, be nasty every week.’ It’s just something they try to instill into us. Going into the games, we’ve got to go in with the mindset that we can beat anybody, anytime. That’s how we can bring that tradition back.”’
Bradley has missed a good chunk of fall camp with an unspecified injury, but the hope is that he'll be good to go for the opener at Kentucky.
Bradley played a key role in USM’s breakout season last year under head coach Todd Monken. After the team went 4-20 in Bradley’s first two years in Hattiesburg, in 2015 it went 9-3 in the regular season before losing in the Conference USA championship game (to Western Kentucky) and in the Heart of Dallas Bowl (to Washington).
This season, the Eagles want more.
“We have very high goals,” Bradley said. “We’re trying to get that conference championship, we’re trying to win that bowl game. Try to enjoy it a little bit more, instead of just getting there. We’re trying to accomplish it all.”
Pecoraro believes Bradley will do his part.
“Dylan is a very versatile football player,” Pecoraro said. “He’s played a lot of football here. I think the great thing is he’s an extremely versatile player, he’s an extremely smart football player. I’m expecting a big year from him.”
Bradley is trying to impress his defensive coordinator in fall drills and his head coach.
“The transition from Coach Monken to Coach Hop has been very easy because Coach Hop is an old-school type guy, he’s a traditional Southern Miss guy,” Bradley said. “Being that he is a defensive coach coming in, he’s always on the defensive field. That’s something to get used to.
“Most (head) coaches are more offensive-type guys, but since Coach Hop got here, every day you see him in the defensive meeting and every day you see him on the defensive side of the field. I like it a lot because I’m a defensive guy. As much as he knows about defense, I just take in everything he says.”
Chasing the QB
At times this season, depending on the defensive alignment, there may be even more pressure on Bradley and other linemen to get to the quarterback than in the past.
“We’re very multiple,” Pecoraro said. “At times we’ll have four (defensive backs) in there, at times we’ll have five in there, at times we’ll have six in there.”
So there may be only three defensive linemen on the field instead of four in certain passing situations.
That’s OK with Bradley
“My supporting cast is better this year than last year,” he said, noting the progress of other linemen like LaDarius Harris, Draper Riley, Ja’Boree Poole and Xavier Thigpen. “They see what it takes to win, so it’s going to be an awesome year with this group of guys.”
“This year is a different speed, a different type of game. We have a whole lot of different things going on. They’re going to be hard for people to game-plan against us.”
Bradley is hands off senior quarterback Nick Mullens in practice. With everybody else, though, Bradley will be nasty.
And that’s what Hopson wants from him.
“Southern Miss football is about being tough,” Hopson said. “It always has been about being tough. When I’m long, gone and dead, it’s still going to be about being tough.
“So that’s not anything I brought to the table, it’s just the tradition of Southern Miss football.”
And that’s just fine with Dylan Bradley.