Southern Miss

Southern Miss moving past early growing pains under Hopson

Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson’s team is 4-1 after dealing with some early growing pains. Receivers coach John Wozniak, back, looks on as he argues with the referee on Saturday in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson’s team is 4-1 after dealing with some early growing pains. Receivers coach John Wozniak, back, looks on as he argues with the referee on Saturday in Hattiesburg. ttisbell@sunherald.com

HATTIESBURG — Sometimes, the transition from one coaching staff to another bogs down the quality of a college football team.

It isn’t that the players aren’t trying, or that the coaches aren’t doing the right things. It’s just that so much new information must be absorbed by the players that they’re doing too much thinking and not enough blocking and tackling.

“Anytime in a year one, there are some growing pains,” Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “There are times we show flashes of being really good. Other times, we’ve just got to get better. We’re continuing to grow.”

Still, with a 4-1 record, 2-0 in Conference USA, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles are getting over their growing pains fairly quickly.

Maybe it’s because they have a proven quarterback (Nick Mullens), running back (Ito Smith) and defensive standout (Dylan Bradley). Maybe it’s because of a somewhat soft schedule. Maybe it’s because first-year head coach Jay Hopson had been at Southern Miss before as an assistant coach and knew the school’s tradition and layout of the land.

While the USM coaches insist they haven’t played a complete game on all cylinders, the record shows that they’re doing something right in this transition year.

“We’re not thinking any more,” safety Picasso Nelson Jr. said. “Just reacting. That’s a key. That and buying into the new coaches and their system.”

Such words are music to Hopson’s ears.

“We’re making steps, but we’re still on that search,” the first-year head coach at Southern Miss said. “That’s part of the journey.

“I don’t think you ever wake up and say, ‘Oh, we’re doing it all great!’ That’s just not reality.”

Coming back to USM may have been less stressful on Hopson than it was on the coaches.

“Take football out of it, I feel at home in Hattiesburg any time,” he said. “But being the grind of football, we’re in that grind, you just know the next week is the next week. That’s the way all coaches live. One’s down, we’ve got to move on to the next one.

“I don’t think you ever really sit back and think about anything other than the next opponent. We’re in the middle of football season, so we’re in the grind right now.”

Part of USM’s success must be attributed to the fact that the players got over former head coach Todd Monken’s departure, when he announced he was leaving the Golden Eagles to become the offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Bucs of the NFL. The coach who recruited most of them was suddenly gone.

But from the beginning, the players seemed to buy in to Hopson and his staff.

“Coach Hop is a great guy,” running back George Payne said. “Just like him, we want to win. He’s our coach, we’re his players. We listen to him and he believes in us. That’s how it goes. We want to win.

“We want to be a winning program. We want to be one of those programs in the Top 25. We want to win a conference championship. That’s our goal, so we all buy in to reach our goals.”

So far, so good.

The next step will be at 11 a.m. Saturday when the Eagles play at UTSA in San Antonio, Texas, in their third straight Conference USA game.

“We’ve got to stay hungry,” Nelson Jr. said. “We’ve got execute. That’s an easy word to say, but hard to do.

“We’re playing well but we have to continue to get better.”

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