You can never read too much into the spring game, but Southern Miss fans at Roberts Stadium Saturday had to leave confident that the team has made progress in areas where it was most needed.
After USM featured a dominant defense in 2018, it was up to new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner and a mostly overhauled offensive staff to inject some energy and confidence into a group that took much of the blame for a 6-5 squad that fell short of a bowl bid.
There’s still a lot of work to be done on the offensive side of the ball, but Saturday’s showing was a clear step in the right direction.
“The No. 1 thing is we came out of this healthy,” Faulkner said after the Gold team’s 10-6 win over the Black. “We’ve had 3 ½ good weeks of work. The kids have picked up the offense really well. I’m excited about the fall and the summer.”
The offensive line play was likely the most encouraging aspect after the group struggled in pass protection and in the ground game a year ago. While neither offense broke many big gainers on the ground, there was usually space for positive yardage on most carries.
The defense picked up some sacks late, but that’s nothing unusual in a spring game where plays are put to a halt before the quarterback takes a hit.
“They’ve made a huge leap,” redshirt junior quarterback Jack Abraham said of the offensive line. “Today, (head coach Jay Hopson) was calling a quick whistle a few times. I don’t think a few of those would have been sacks. They were kind of mad about that. I thought today they played well, fought hard.”
Ryan Stanchek, a former offensive line standout at West Virginia, moved over from Alcorn State to take on the role of offensive line coach. He has shown that he’s not afraid to move experienced players down the depth chart and give players like true freshman guard Coker Wright a chance to prove himself as a starter.
“The easiest thing with depth is if somebody makes a mistake or the effort is not there, ‘Go get some water. Take a break,’” Stanchek said. “We’ve got 18 guys now. I don’t have to yell and scream. Competition breeds success. That’s what we’re looking for now. They gave great attitude and effort this spring.”
USM went through the spring without last year’s starting left tackle, Drake Dorbeck, and Trace Clopton, a rising sophomore who started at center last year. Once those two return to the fold, the Eagles will look even deeper up front.
The depth chart has changed off and on through the spring, but the first-string offensive line lately has been: Left tackle — Arvin Fletcher, left guard — Wright, center — Grey Best, right guard — Bryce Foxworth and right tackle — Khalique Washington.
USM’s top two quarterbacks, Abraham and sophomore Tate Whatley, mostly had enough time to find their receivers during Saturday’s scrimmage.
While Abraham didn’t hurt his cause on Saturday, Whatley showed that he has at least narrowed the gap between himself and last year’s starter.
Whatley completed 10 of 15 passes for 203 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, as he led the Gold team to the win. Abraham completed 19 of 29 passes for 200 yards and two interceptions.
Hopson said Saturday that he was ready to give Whatley a chance to battle with Abraham for the starting job this fall.
“I’m going to let them compete,” Hopson said. “Tate has earned that right. He came out today and just had an outstanding day, so we’re going to put the ball down and let guys go and we’ll find out here mid-August where we’re at.”
Whatley said Saturday that he has a much better of understanding of where to go with the ball after being thrown into the fire late last year when Abraham missed time with an injury.
“I got in the film room and my reads got faster,” Whatley said. “I’ve still got to work on reads because I missed some today. I have to be quick with my reads and get the ball out.”
USM went through the spring without last year’s leading receiver, Quez Watkins, as he continues get his academics in order, but Faulkner has been encouraged by what he’s seen out of his receiving corps as a whole.
Senior Trevor Terry, who is a Long Beach product, had a 64-yard touchdown reception and Neil McLaurin made a pair of impressive receptions where he went high for the ball and brought it down.
McLaurin, a West Jones product, finished with three catches for 84 yards.
“Neil McLaurin is one guy that really impressed me,” Faulkner said. “He went up and was high pointing the ball.”