Southern Miss

Southern Miss awaits word on the status of a star player. Here’s where things stand.

Southern Miss fans and members of the football staff anxiously await final word on whether the team’s best offensive player from 2018 will on the field for the Aug. 31 season opener against Alcorn State.

With 10 of the 11 starters on the offensive unit that faced UTEP in the 2018 finale expected to return, it was fair to assume that USM would take a significant leap on that side of the ball this year.

However, a January report by Jeff Haeger of WXXV-25 indicated that star receiver Quez Watkins’ future was in doubt after he left the USM campus to enroll at a junior college in an effort to get his grades up and become academically eligible for the 2019 campaign.

Even without Watkins, USM would have a solid receiving corps. Junior Tim Jones, senior Jordan Mitchell, junior Jaylond Adams and senior De’Michael Harris combined to catch 131 passes a year ago.

However, there’s no denying that Watkins was the best big-play threat on the USM offense in 2018 regardless of position. He caught 72 passes for 889 yards and nine touchdowns to set team highs in all three categories and earn a First-Team All-Conference USA selection.

The good news for Golden Eagle fans is that Watkins is back on campus and taking classes at USM this summer, the Sun Herald has confirmed. If the redshirt junior hits all his marks in the classroom, he’ll be ready to take the field for the 2019 season.

Improved passing game

With Watkins unavailable in the spring, the USM passing offense still looked good with junior quarterback Jack Abraham working well with a group of receivers that also received strong contributions from a pair of seniors who had a hard time getting on the field in 2018 — Trevor Terry and Neil McLaurin.

Sophomore quarterback Tate Whatley, who is the better athlete, also can’t be fully discounted in the quarterback race after he completed 10 of 15 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Abraham completed 19 of 29 for 200 yards and two interceptions.

New offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner also has the option of putting both Abraham and Whatley on the field this season. The USM offense was at its best late in 2018 when former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson mixed in Whatley on occasion.

If Watkins falls short of eligibility, USM should be OK in the passing game. If he’s available, he’ll add a consistent big play threat to the mix at receiver.

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All about the O-line

Regardless of how much talent and experience USM features in the passing game, the success of the offense will come down to the performance of the offensive line.

USM has a trio of sophomores at running back who each have the potential to carry the load in Trivenskey Mosley, Steven Anderson and Darius Maberry. Mosley is the team’s top returning rusher after carrying 99 times for 494 yards and one touchdown. He also caught 24 passes for 87 yards.

Mosley worked mostly with the first team in the spring and is on pace to be the starting running back for the season opener.

A year ago, USM had a terrible time consistently running the football behind an offensive line that failed to create much of a push. The Eagles averaged just 3.1 yards a carry.

Under new offensive line coach Ryan Stancheck, there were signs of hope for that group in the spring. They did a better job of protecting the quarterback in the spring game and they did that with a pair of starters sidelined with injuries — senior left tackle Drake Dorbeck and sophomore center Trace Clopton.

There’s also the potential of junior college transfers like Tanner Hawthorne and Tre Johnson pushing for starting spots this fall. One junior college signee, Khalique Washington, finished the spring as the starting right tackle.

Redshirt junior Arvin Fletcher, who filled a variety of roles over his first two seasons, stepped up in the spring as the left tackle. True freshman Coker Wright impressed in the spring at left guard and junior Bryce Foxworth has made steady progress, earning first-string status at right guard.

At the very least, USM should have more players competing for playing time on the offensive line.

Patrick Magee is a sports writer who has covered South Mississippi for much of the last two decades. From Southern Miss to high schools, he stays on top of it all.