In eight seasons over three different stints on the Southern Miss staff, fourth-year head coach Jay Hopson has been around some stingy defenses in Hattiesburg.
Entering the 2019 campaign, Hopson believes this year’s group has a shot to be among the best.
“It’s right up there with some really good ones depth-wise,” he said on Tuesday. “We’re good up front and we’ve got some experience on the back end.
“We can’t rest on any laurels, but we’ve got everybody back but one or two guys from last year’s defense. But we have to understand it’s a new year and a new challenge.”
Among the 11 players who are probable starters on defense for the Aug. 31 season opener against Alcorn State in Hattiesburg, seven have made multiple starts on the FBS level. Three other players saw significant time off the bench a year ago.
That depth and experience doesn’t stop on the offensive side of the ball with 10 of the 11 players who started the 2018 season finale returning, but there’s much more to prove for that group after struggling badly to run the ball a year ago.
It’s up to first-year offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, who was previously at Arkansas State, and a revamped offensive staff to turn around a group that averaged 26.8 points in 2018.
While it remains to be seen how this year’s offense responds, Faulkner is confident that he pieces are in place for a productive season.
“I think we’ve got good depth,” he said. “We’re still developing that. We’re trying to figure out things in certain spots if guys go down. We want to see how the pieces move. We’re trying to avoid moving positions if somebody breaks down. We want to be two-deep at every spot, and we’re getting closer to that.”
USM, which finished 6-5 and missed out on a bowl last year, still has much to determine before the opener, but now is a good time to take a shot at a projected starting lineup and other players who are on track to play important roles this season:
Quarterback glance: Abraham appears on track to be the starter, but sophomore Tate Whatley is a good athlete who will have a role to play as the No. 2.
RB — Trivenskey Mosley (Soph.)*
Running back glance: Faulkner believes he has five different running backs who can contribute. Steven Anderson (R-Soph.), Darius Maberry (R-Soph.), Kevin Perkins (R-Jr.) and Jordan Kempf (R-Fresh.) are in position to get snaps.
TE — Ray Ladner (R-Soph.)
Tight end glance: The tight end position should play a larger role in the passing game this season. For the first time in a while, USM has multiple options – Naricuss Driver (Jr.), William Potosky (R-Sr.), Luke Baker (Fr.) and Cole Cavallo (R-Fr.)
WR — Quez Watkins (R-Jr.)*
WR — Jordan Mitchell (R-Sr.)*
Receiver glance: The receiving corps is the deepest group on the offense and Jaylond Adams (R-Soph.) has actually received more first-string snaps than Watkins recently. Senior De’Michael Harris will be a solid backup to Jones in the slot. Seniors Neil McLaurin and Trevor Terry provide quality depth on the outside.
LT — Drake Dorbeck (R-Sr.)*
LG — Ty Pollard (R-Sr.)*
C — Trace Clopton (Soph.)*
RG — Arvin Fletcher (Jr.)*
RT — Khalique Washington (Jr.)
Offensive line glance: Junior college transfer Tanner Hawthorne has been splitting first-string snaps with Washington at right tackle and former Miami offensive tackle Tre Johnson is backing up Dorbeck. Freshman Coker Wright has been moved to center after initially being in the hunt at both guard spots. Hayden Sturdevant (R-Soph.) and Bryce Foxworth (Jr.) should provide depth on the interior.
DT — DeMarrio Smith (Sr.)*
DT — Delmond Landry (RS-Sr.)
Defensive line glance: The starting four listed here include two All-Conference USA preseason selections (Smith and Turner) and Brown, a transfer with starting experience at Penn State. Defensive line coach Chris Boone believes he has eight players he can roll onto the field. Defensive tackles Tahj Sykes (R-Soph.) and Von’Darius Freeman (R-Jr.) will get significant playing time and have a shot to start. Ethan Edmondson (Soph.) is backing up Turner, but East Mississippi transfer Eriq Kitckens (6-2, 280) and Nick Dawson (RS-Sr.) are worthy of playing time there as well. Defensive coordinator Tim Billings has several options at the hybrid position, including Alcorn State transfer Terry Whittington (G-Sr.) and Darius Kennedy (R-Sr.).
LB — Santrell Latham (R-Soph.)
Linebackers glance: The Golden Eagles likely have the deepest group of linebackers in Conference USA with Hayes Maples (R-Fr.), Swayze Bozeman (Jr.) and Ty’Ree Evans (R-Jr.) all expected to see significant playing time.
NB — D.Q. Thomas (Jr.)
CB — Rachuan Mitchell (R-Jr.)*
CB — Ty Williams (Sr.)*
S — Ky’el Hemby (R-Jr.)*
S — Shannon Showers (Soph.)
Secondary glance: A pair of seniors, Taj Jones and Ernest Gunn, are on pace to be the backup cornerbacks. At safety, Tyler Barnes (R-Jr.) and Nick Harper (Soph.) will provide depth. Junior Wydale Flott is running behind Thomas at the nickel.
Punter — Zac Everett (R-Jr.)*
Kicker — Andrew Stein (Fr.)
Special teams glance: Stein appears to have the edge at kicker over junior college transfer Ryan Schemtob after Briggs Bourgeois went down with an injury in the spring. Everett averaged 39.2 yards a punt last season. Jaylond Adams, Matthew Pleasant and Quez Watkins should contribute on kick and punt returns.