HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss linebacker Elijah Parker made his way onto the Conference USA Commissioner’s Academic Honor Roll the past two years, so it’s fairly predictable that he would be smart on the football field, too.
And he is.
After a fall scrimmage, last season’s C-USA Offensive Player of the Year, Nick Mullens said: “The defense is always going to give us challenges, especially Elijah. Every play is a puzzle match with him.”
Golden Eagles defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said that Parker has continued his mastery into the regular season heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. home game against Troy.
“Elijah is doing a fantastic job,” Pecoraro said. “He’s a guy who has played a lot of football here who’s got a lot of knowledge of the game. He’s a great leader in the locker room, a great leader on the field. I couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s done for us so far.”
Parker, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Brandon and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, is proud of his academic skills on the field, and credits Mullens for making him a better player.
“Nick definitely prepares me for a game,” Parker said. “It’s great facing a quarterback like Nick every day in practice because that’s only going to make you better for the team you’re going to play. I see how Nick reads a player and see how another quarterback reads a player, Basically, Nick does it better. It prepares me and the defense for Saturday games.”
On the rise
This is Parker’s third season at Southern Miss.
As a sophomore, he played in 10 games and made three starts, finishing the season with 41 tackles.
As a junior, Parker started all 14 games and made 47 tackles and forced three fumbles.
This season, as a senior, the sky is the limit.
The Golden Eagles gave up 35 points in the first half to Kentucky, but none in the second half.
“Lack of communication (hurt),” Parker said. “Not focusing in and getting the right signals. We cleaned a lot of that up at halftime.
“Coach Pec, he really talks about building off each game. We really focused on communication, knowing where everybody has to be at the right time.”
Along with fewer missed assignments, that communication helped shut out Kentucky in the second half and Savannah State the entire game. As a result, the Eagles are 2-0.
Parker said he loved the shutout, even more than limiting Savannah State to only 41 yards of offense.
“I take more pride in the zero points, getting a shutout, because that means more to the defense,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time Southern Miss defense has had a shutout.”
The shutout against Savannah State was USM’s first since 2009, when it defeated Alcorn State 52-0.
Other Southern Miss shutouts this century were wins over Southeastern Louisiana 45-0 in 2005, UAB 3-0 in 2001 and Alabama 21-0 in 2000.
Parker, the Sam linebacker, and C.J. Perry, the Mike linebacker, do more than just hit you.
“I’d give us an A,” Parker said. “Me and C.J., our communications are so above everyone else’s because we have to get the call, give it to the D-line, then give it to the safeties.
“I feel like we have to be the closest guys on the team because we’re making calls, changing calls. A lot of times we play what we call. C.J. can make a call, and I can see something else, but I’ve got to go with what he says just so we’re all on the same page.”
Mullens believes Southern Miss is getting the maximum out of his teammate.
“He’s kind of like me in the fact that he’s not the biggest, not the strongest, not the fastest — although he’s very athletic — he’s a very smart player,” Mullens said. “He’s always going to do his assignment. He’s very physical, always going to give you a full effort. He covers better than most of the linebackers I’ve seen. He’s very agile. He played receiver in high school. He kind of picked at me about that for a little bit. He’s a coach’s dream at linebacker, a very dependable guy. He’s going to make a lot of plays, be physical, and always at the right spot.”
Parker says maybe he could do more, and he has that wide receiver position in mind. He even tried to talk his way onto the offense against Savannah State.
“I did,” Parker said with a laugh. “I was trying to get some playing time on Saturday at receiver. (Offensive coordinator Shannon) Dawson wouldn’t let me.”
That’s OK with Parker. And as long as the defense keeps throwing shutouts, it’ll be OK with the coaches and fans, too.
Who: Southern Miss vs. Troy
When: 6 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
TV: beIN SPORTS
Radio: 104.9 FM