When Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham stepped up to speak with the media Friday night at the Biloxi Civic Center, the change was obvious in his physical appearance.
The Oxford native checks in at around his same playing weight from a year ago, but Abraham looked much thinner in the face during the Southern Miss Beach Bash, which allows fans to mingle with coaches and players.
“I tried leaning up this summer,” Abraham said. “I’m still around 200-205 (pounds), but I wanted to lean up and get quicker on my feet.”
Abraham is one part of what appears to be a significant physical transformation for the team following the hiring of former Charlotte strength and conditioning coach Jim Durning.
While players like Abraham have cut body fat, others have made significant leaps in the weight room.
“We had eight guys last year do about 500 on the squat,” USM redshirt junior linebacker Jacques Turner said. “This year, over 30 guys are over 500 on the squat. It’s a huge difference. You’re going to notice that on the field this season.”
Players wrapped up summer workouts this week by maxing out on lifts and the squat wasn’t the only area where more players saw improvements.
“We had eight or nine guys dead-lift over 400 last year. It was 40 this year,” Abraham said. “Our strength is definitely improving. Our guys look rocked up and that’s definitely going to be important.”
After being hired at Charlotte in July of 2012, Durning was there at every step as the 49ers built their football program. While the 49ers have yet to put together a winning season since their first campaign as an FBS program in 2015, they have always featured one of the more physical teams in Conference USA.
When Charlotte head coach Brad Lambert was replaced by former Austin Peay head coach Will Healy after the 2018 season, USM head coach Jay Hopson scooped up the free agent strength and conditioning coach.
“Mickey Matthews was the head coach at James Madison and Jim was his strength coach,” Hopson said. “I talked to Mickey and he gave glowing recommendations on Jim. I interviewed him and fell in love with him. He’s done a great job.
“We’re just working on getting bigger, getting stronger. Jim has done a great job in the weight room. We’ve got a lot of mass, which is big for us. Everybody in in good shape. It’s been a good summer.”
USM players report for fall camp on Thursday and the first practice will take place on Friday.
Durning’s efforts may make the biggest impact on an offensive line that failed to generate much of a push throughout the 2018 season.
On Friday, Hopson seemed upbeat about that group. A pair of starters, tackle Drake Dorbeck and center Trace Clopton, are set to return after missing the spring with injuries and junior college transfer tackle Tanner Hawthorne is also set to contribute after sitting out the spring. Hopson said that former Miami offensive lineman Tre Johnson joined the team this summer and will go through fall workouts.
“We don’t know who our starting five are going to be,” Hopson said. “We’re going to throw down the ball and let them compete to find out who the starting five are. Competition makes you better. We’ve added seven offensive linemen. It’ll be fun to watch competition.”
Abraham said he believes there are “eight or nine” players who could start on the offensive line this season.
Redshirt junior receiver Quez Watkins left campus in the spring to enroll at a junior college to get his academics in order, but he’s back in class at USM and still on track to be ready for the Aug. 31 season opener against Alcorn State.
“He’s in class right now,” Hopson said. “He’s just got to finish strong academically.”
Watkins was an all-conference selection in 2018 with 72 receptions for 889 yards and nine touchdowns.
USM added an Alcorn State graduate transfer this summer who could make a significant impact on the defensive line this season.
Redshirt senior Terry Whittington is a 6-foot-5, 234-pound defensive end who was a HBCU All-American and SWAC All-Conference First-Team selection in 2018.
Whittington had nine sacks, 56 tackles and seven quarterback hurries last season at Alcorn State. As a junior, he had 52 tackles and two sacks.
Whittington, who played receiver and linebacker in high school, is a native of Cooper City, Florida.