Jack Abraham was back home in Oxford on Dec. 2 when he and his Southern Miss teammates were waiting to find out if they were bowl-bound after putting together a 6-5 mark during the 2018 season.
Once all the bids were set, USM was left out of the postseason for the first time since 2014.
“I was scrolling on Twitter, refreshing every 5 seconds,” Abraham said. “It was tough to deal with, but I think it was good for us. I think we’re using that as motivation, something to build off of.”
If USM wants to get over the hump by playing for a conference title and earning a bowl bid, it’s obvious where the most progress has to be made in 2019.
Last year, USM had the nation’s most accurate passer in Abraham with a completion percentage of 73.1 and the strongest defense in Conference USA. The missing piece in 2018 was painfully obvious with a poor rushing attack that featured an average of 112.6 yards a game.
“One thing we have to do to win a conference championship is to be able to run the football,” new USM offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner said after the first practice of the spring on Tuesday. “That’s something we’ll make an emphasis on this spring. It starts up front along with the tight ends and running backs. That’s a big emphasis.”
USM does return a pair of promising young running backs in sophomore Trivenskey Mosley and redshirt sophomore Steven Anderson. Mosley ran 99 times for 494 yards and one touchdown while the powerful Anderson added 76 carries for 328 yards and six scores.
Mosley mostly worked with the first team offense on Monday, taking handoffs from Abraham while Anderson ran with the second squad.
“We want to improve a lot,” Anderson said. “We were one of the worst in the country at the running the football. We’ve got to improve. We have to if we want to win.”
With a little more stability in the backfield, it will be up to Faulkner and new offensive line coach Ryan Stanchek to find the right mix on the offensive line. USM ended up with four different starting lineups over the final six weeks of the season, until settling on a group that ran the ball for 252 yards in a 39-7 win at UTEP in the regular season finale.
Junior Paul Gainer, a Gautier product, lined up at left tackle with the first team offense in Tuesday’s session. The rest of the line was: Left guard — senior Ty Pollard, center — redshirt junior Grey Best, right guard — junior Bryce Foxworth, right tackle — redshirt junior Arvin Fletcher.
One key name missing from the first-string unit on Tuesday was redshirt senior Drake Dorbeck, who has mostly started at left tackle the last two seasons. He worked some with the third-string unit on Tuesday.
When asked where things stand with Dorbeck, USM head coach Jay Hopson answered, “Don’t know yet. He’s got to get there and battle when he gets healthy.”
It’s unclear what injury Dorbeck is dealing with.
Fletcher was a bright spot for USM last year and appeared to solve whatever problems the team was having at right tackle late in the year. The Ridgeland native started at three different positions a year ago and he has the ability to play all five positions.
“I’m comfortable everywhere,” Fletcher said. “They put me somewhere and I’m going to give it all I got. I’ve played them all since I’ve been here. The more you can play, the more valuable you are. I’ll slide in where they need me.”
With Jeremy Sangster and Sherrod Ruff graduated, a key spot to fill on defense will be middle linebacker.
On Tuesday, a pair of young players were in the top two spots on the depth chart. Redshirt sophomore Santrell Latham, a Meridian native, ran with the first team and he was backed up by redshirt freshman Hayes Maples, an Oak Grove product.
Maples and Latham give USM a little more size at the position. Both players stands 6-foot-2 and check in at about 230 pounds.
Hopson, his assistants and players were upbeat about the first practice of the spring on Tuesday.
Faulkner pointed out some strong performances by several players.
“The biggest thing I’m excited about is how our guys learned the tempo we want to play at, how we want to dictate the pace of the game,” Faulkner said. “That was the thing we really emphasized the last several weeks
“Guys that have stuck out the last several weeks are (receivers) Tim Jones, De’Michael Harris and Jordan Mitchell. Those guys, I was impressed with them today. They made plays. The offensive line did well for the first time playing at the pace we want them to. They were able to identify some things up front, stuff like that.”
Abraham connected with his receivers with ease on Tuesday, showing that the passing game shouldn’t take much of a step back this spring despite dealing with the absence of Quez Watkins, who is working to get his academics straight for the 2019 season.
“We’ve been working, throwing a good bit the past couple of weeks,” Abraham said. “Getting back out there was like riding a bicycle.”