Southern Miss

Southern Miss’ Xavier Thigpen ‘pushing forward’ as he deals with tragedy

Southern Miss defensive end Xavier Thigpen (32) recovers a fumble in the end zone by Southern University Glendon McDaniel (12) for a touchdown Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg on Sept. 9.
Southern Miss defensive end Xavier Thigpen (32) recovers a fumble in the end zone by Southern University Glendon McDaniel (12) for a touchdown Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg on Sept. 9. Special to The Sun Herald

With 30 career starts to his credit, Southern Miss defensive lineman Xavier Thigpen could be called a solid football player.

With 9 tackles, 2 pass breakups, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery this season, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior out of West Jones High School could be called a man who can get the job done.

With coaches praising him for his leadership abilities, Thigpen personifies the word veteran.

But Thigpen said this week that things have been a little shaky for him this year.

“During the spring, I had a lot of family members with illnesses,” Thigpen said. “My grandmother, she’s kind of sick, and my dad he was sick at the time and I ended up losing him in late June.

“But I’m pushing forward.”

Terry Thigpen, who was a pastor at Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Soso, died on June 29.

Deep line

Southern Miss is becoming known this season for playing a multitude of defensive linemen, although Xavier Thigpen has certainly been on the field for his share of them. And he likes the setup.

“Our defensive line rotation is pretty good,” he said. “We’re playing 10 or 11 guys. Just keeping us fresh. We pass rush on third down while we’re fresh. Down players play their downs, like first and second down. Third down, keep rocking and rolling.

“I’m in there most of the downs. I know I had a lot of stuff going on so I lost about 10 pounds. I know there are some heavier guys in there that can play the run a little bit better. I’m not a selfish player at all.”

Matter of fact, he kind of likes it when a teammate comes up with a big play.

“If I’m on the sideline, you’ll see me waving my helmet, throwing it up in the air, fist bumping, running on the field if they make a play,” Thigpen said. “If he make a play, we make a play, we all make a play. So it makes all of us excited.”

Southern Miss is off to a 2-1 record this season with North Texas coming to town for a 6 p.m. game on Saturday, the first Conference USA contest of the season for USM. The Mean Green, which defeated USM 29-23 last year, is 2-2 this season.

Thigpen says North Texas is balanced offensively, so the Southern Miss defensive line must pressure quarterback Mason Fine to have a chance for a win.

“They got a pretty good running back (Jeffery Wilson), a pretty solid quarterback, they got a couple quick guys on the edges, wide receivers, I know they like to run a lot of plays, get them in space,” Thigpen said. “We’ve just got to play big in front and try to make them a one-dimensional football team. That’s the goal every week. If you get a team doing one thing, hopefully we’ll stop that, too.”

New year, new outlook

So far, the Golden Eagles have been pretty good at doing that. Their scoring defense is tied with UTSA for first in Conference USA at 13.7 points per game. USM is tied for second in the league in pass defense, allowing 122.0 yards per game and is second in total defense, giving up 241.3 yards per game.

“Last year, we had new coaches, new playbook,” Thigpen said. “So get the old out of the way, the terminology is new. We took it upon ourselves this year to really buy into the system, because last year there were a lot of ifs, what if, but this year we’ve got a bunch of older guys who believe in the system, they trust the coaches, we’re going from there.”

USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro believes Thigpen will help get them there.

“He’s a big-time pass rusher. Great energy. Great leadership,” Pecoraro said. “He’s a guy that has been here for a long time, played a lot of football for us, and he’s just one of those guys you can count on, especially being a senior.

“It’s his last go-round. He’s got some big opportunities ahead of him. as long as he takes advantage of what he’s got. He’s definitely someone we rely on heavily on the defense of Southern Miss football.”

And while the serious Thigpen, nicknamed PawPaw by his teammates, is doing his best stopping opposing offenses on the field and trying to be a leader off it, sometimes he masks his inner feelings.

“I know this defense,” he said. “Most of them look up to me. So I just try to come out and not let them see my pain and just be the best leader I can be.”

Game plan

Who: North Texas vs. Southern Miss

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

Radio: 104.9 FM