On a Southern Miss defense loaded with returning talent, a pair of newcomers operated under the spotlight during the first practice of fall camp on Friday.
Torrence Brown, who moved to USM from Penn State, and ex-Alcorn State standout Terry Whittington are both graduate senior defensive ends, but they landed on the Hattiesburg campus for different reasons.
Brown transferred to USM from a Power 5 program with hopes of resurrecting his career after initially deciding to step away from football prior to the 2018 season due to a knee injury.
Whittington made the 150-mile move from Lorman to Hattiesburg with the idea of proving himself on a higher level and improving his odds of becoming an NFL draft pick.
At USM, they’ll be competing for playing time at the same defensive end/linebacker hybrid position.
“They’re from the same mold,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “We graduated a couple of guys there so we brought those guys in.”
It was Hopson, who served as the head coach at Alcorn State from 2012-15, that first convinced Whittington to sign with Alcorn State out of Cooper City (Fla.) High School. He developed into an All-SWAC performer with nine sacks as a redshirt junior, but hoped for the chance to prove himself on the FBS level after graduating from Alcorn State.
“I looked for a bigger, better opportunity, a bigger stage,” Whittington said. “I transitioned into the transfer portal and then I contacted a couple of old coaches that I knew where I could fit into the defensive schemes they were running. I felt like this was one of the better schemes. I contacted Coach Hop and (co-defensive coordinator Derek Nicholson) and they gave me this opportunity.”
Whittington said the chance to practice Friday with a pair of his former coaches at Alcorn State was a “mind-breaking experience.”
“They both have great personalities and great enthusiasm,” he said.
The 6-foot-5, 216-pound Whittington mostly played with his hand down as a defensive end at Alcorn State, but he said he’s glad to see more opportunities to work off the line of scrimmage after playing mostly linebacker in high school.
Brown, who committed to Southern Miss while he was at Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Academy before signing with Penn State, is still working his way back to 100 percent health after suffering an injury to his right knee last year. On Friday, he worked out with his new teammates with little indication that he is still hindered by his injury.
“I felt really good out there with the brace on,” Brown said. “Hopefully, I can work out of that brace soon. But I felt really good.”
Brown hasn’t played since he missed the final 10 games of the 2017 campaign after starting the first three. His most productive season came in 2016 when he played in all 14 games with four starts, registering 16 tackles, forcing three fumbles and recovering two.
After injuring his right knee for the second time since high school, doctors advised Brown last year that it was better to retire from the game.
“I kind of took that with a grain of salt,” he said Friday. “I had to go talk with my family because my family wasn’t there when he told me. I didn’t make a decision right then. I went home, talked to my family and decided I wasn’t done yet.”
Following an injury-prone career at Penn State, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Brown is just hoping to find a role on the USM defense.
“Ultimately, I’m a team player,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to bring whatever assets I can to help this team win.”
Whittington will face his old Alcorn State teammates at 6 p.m. on Aug. 31 when USM opens the season in Hattiesburg.
Redshirt junior receiver Quez Watkins practiced Friday with the team after sitting out the spring to get his academics in order, catching a couple of deep tosses during passing drills.
“He’s doing really good,” Hopson said. “That will be a fun to position to watch because we’ve got seven or eight guys all battling. We know Quez had a great year last year, but we’ve got a bunch of good players at that position.”
Watkins was a First-Team All-Conference USA performer in 2018 with 72 catches for 889 yards and nine touchdowns.
Junior Briggs Bourgeois entered the spring in position to take over as the USM place-kicker after converting on both of his field goal tries last year, but an injury appears to have put his 2019 campaign in some doubt.
USM has five other players listed as kickers on the roster on Friday — redshirt senior Tyler Flathau (who was the backup punter last season), Pearl River Community college transfer Will Lang, freshman Dalton Melancon from Boutte, Louisiana, redshirt sophomore Ryan Schemtob from Highland (Kan.) Community College and freshman Andrew Stein from Slidell, Louisiana.
Schemtob and Stein may be USM’s best options to fill the place-kicking role. Schemtob was 12-of-17 on field goals last season, including makes of 50 and 54 yards. Stein chose the Golden Eagles over offers from Army and McNeese State.
Junior linebacker Racheem Boothe is among the players who have packed on pounds during summer workouts with working with new strength coach Jim Durning. After playing the 2018 season at 217 pounds, he said Friday that he is checking in at around 227-30 to start fall camp.
Dodge City (Kan.) Community College transfer Khalique Washington ran with the first string offensive line at right tackle on Friday after ending the spring in that same role.
The rest of the first-string offensive line was redshirt junior Arvin Fletcher at right guard, sophomore Trace Clopton at center, freshman Coker Wright at left guard and redshirt senior Drake Dorbeck at left tackle.
Clopton and Dorbeck both sat out the spring with injuries, but appeared to be in good shape on Friday.