Southern Miss starts fall camp No. 4 under head coach Jay Hopson on Friday and most observers expect the team to be in the hunt for its first Conference USA title since 2011.
There’s experienced talent returning on both sides of the ball, but plenty to be determined in the coming weeks.
USM, which is coming off a 6-5 season that did not include a bowl trip, opens the 2019 campaign with a home game against Alcorn State at 6 p.m. on Aug. 31.
Here’s a look what what to keep an eye on over the next month’s worth of practices:
▪ QB battle: It would be a significant upset if redshirt junior Jack Abraham is not the starting quarterback in the opener, but Hopson is leaving the door open to go with sophomore Tate Whatley.
“I think at the end of the spring, (Whatley) made a push the last two weeks,” Hopson said last week. “Competition makes everybody better. Tate led us to some wins down the stretch. We’ll throw the ball out there and let them compete. I feel good about our quarterback room. We’ve also signed good football players in Jaden Johnson and Chandler Rogers.”
Whatley managed to avoid the big mistake in 2018, throwing only one interception in six games, but his accuracy lagged behind Abraham, who completed 73.1 percent of his passes to lead the nation in that category.
When Abraham returned from an injury late in the 2018 season, former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson effectively implemented a two-quarterback system. While Abraham still took most of the snaps, Whatley made an impact when his name was called.
Whatley is the better athlete and he showed some progress throwing the ball in the spring, but Abraham is likely the more steady option to start the 2019 season.
A strong fall from Whatley will force new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner to find a way to get him on the field.
▪ Offensive line progress: It doesn’t matter who is at quarterback or running back if the offensive line resembles the 2018 group that struggled so badly, but there was reason to be optimistic about the line leaving the spring.
Sophomore center Trace Clopton and redshirt senior tackle Drake Dorbeck sat out the spring with injuries, but both are ready to go for the start of fall camp. Also, USM will add a pair of junior college standouts to the mix in former Purdue tackle Tanner Hawthorne and ex-Miami signee Tre Johnson.
The spring game showed that the line should be able to better protect the quarterback. The goal this fall will be to provide a much improved push in the ground game.
▪ Who is the odd man out?: Hopson expects All-Conference USA receiver Quez Watkins to be academically eligible for fall camp and that means a deep receiving corps will be that much more crowded. With seven different players who are arguably good enough to start for this year’s squad, it’s inevitable that some players will spend more time on the sideline than they’d like.
Watkins, junior Tim Jones and redshirt senior Jordan Mitchell should see plenty of snaps after the three players combined to catch 151 passes a year ago.
Jaylond Adams and De’Michael Harris are too elusive to keep off the field while a pair of seniors, Trevor Terry and Neil McLaurin, showed in the spring that they have a shot to put together breakout seasons.
Regardless of who is on the field, USM has a good chance to have the best receiving corps in C-USA.
▪ Which transfer will make an impact?: USM landed Penn State defensive end Torrence Brown as a graduate transfer in January, but he won’t be the only graduate transfer lining up at end for USM this season.
Former Alcorn State transfer Terry Whittington is a 6-foot-5, 234-pound player who picked up All-SWAC and HBCU All-American selections in 2018. The Florida native registered nine sacks and 56 tackles for the Braves last season.
Brown had a hard time staying on the field at Penn State, even announcing his retirement a year ago due to his frustration with injuries. He was on campus, but did not take part in spring drills at USM.
If Whittington, Brown or Nick Dawson can provide the pass rush off the edge, the Eagles will be that much tougher to move the ball on in 2018.
▪ In the middle: Redshirt junior Jacques Turner should settle in well at the wolf position and junior Racheem Boothe provides plenty of experience at the strongside linebacker spot, but USM will have a new a face at middle linebacker.
Redshirt sophomore Santrell Latham had an impressive spring at middle linebacker with redshirt freshman Hayes Maples also showing some promise in the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
While Jeremy Sangster and Sherrod Ruff were slightly undersized at the position in 2018, Latham is an athletic 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker and Maples offers good size at 6-2, 235.
While USM may be bigger and more athletic at middle linebacker, Latham and Maples have much to prove during camp.