When Buster Faulkner was hired as the Southern Miss offensive coordinator in the middle of February, it served as somewhat of an anticlimactic moment for some Golden Eagle fans.
While the 38-year-old Faulkner was qualified for the job after holding the same role at Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee, Murray State and Valdosta State, he wasn’t the big splash that some hoped for. Also, he was relieved of his duties by Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson in January after the team finished 8-5.
Two weeks prior to Faulkner’s arrival at USM, head coach Jay Hopson attempted to hire controversial former Baylor head coach Art Briles, but that idea was nixed by school administration following a intense debate on campus and among fans.
Fast forward eight months later: The Southern Miss offense is explosive as it has ever been under the direction of Faulkner. As a high school head coach in Mount Vernon, Texas, Briles is facing the possibility of forfeiting five victories due to the use of ineligible players.
The controversy surrounding the Briles saga hasn’t entirely been forgotten in Hattiesburg, but the arrival of athletic director Jeremy McClain in April and a 4-2 football team that features an exciting offense have calmed the waters.
‘A cerebral guy’
During Faulkner’s three-year stint at Arkansas State, Anderson coached the quarterbacks and handled play-calling duties. When Faulkner landed at USM, it marked his first chance to handle both of those roles since he ended a successful five-year run on the Middle Tennessee staff in 2015.
Six games into the 2019 season, Faulkner’s offense appears ready to run roughshod over much of Conference USA with redshirt junior quarterback Jack Abraham and a gifted group of skill players gaining confidence with each week.
While previous USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who is now at Houston, developed a reputation as a fiery and opinionated staff member, Faulkner is more subdued away from the field and seems almost professorial at times.
“He’s got his low-key moments, but he knows how to fire us up,” Abraham said. “He knows when to get us going. He knows his players. He’s definitely a cerebral guy.
“He comes to work every day just ready to work. His attention detail rubs off on me and everybody else. He wants everybody to be perfectionists and be their best. That’s something that helps me.”
Even with USM (4-2, 2-0) scoring 30.5 points a game and Abraham nearing 2,000 yards passing, Faulkner believes his play-calling can take it up another notch.
“We’ve still got too many negative plays for my liking,” he said. “Our goal is to have two or less a game. I think it was seven the other day. Those are 3-yard gains or 2-yard gains. I think the biggest thing now is we’ve got guys making plays. We throw a glance route the other day to (receiver Quez Watkins) and it’s completed about 12 yards and he turns it into 50 or 60. That makes it easy for a play-caller when those things happen.”
After leading the nation with a completion percentage of 73.1 a year ago, Abraham is hitting 71.7 percent of his attempts for 1,936 yards, 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Oxford native is getting more time to find his receivers down field, and that’s led to more explosive plays. After being sacked 24 times in nine games last season, he has been sacked on seven occasions through six contests.
An improved offensive line has given Abraham more time in the pocket, and that’s resulted in an average of 15 yards per completion — a 4.5-yard improvement over a year ago. That 15-yard figure ranks second in the nation for quarterbacks who have completed at least 100 passes this year.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been around one like him,” Faulkner said. “He may be one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever been around, not just football. He’s a high GPA guy. He wants to be a dentist. He studies all the time, and I think that carries over.”
Faulkner describes Abraham as a quarterback who takes input and quickly translates that to the field, leading to several key changes during the course of games.
“We made an adjustment at halftime the other night,” Faulkner said. “I drew it up on the board. He goes out and executes it for a big first down. Right now, he’s dialed in and he’s got guys making plays around him. The offensive line is doing a great job and we’re excited about the way he’s playing. It’s just got to keep going.”
The wins over Troy and North Texas stand out as USM’s two best performances on offense with a total of 92 points and 1,189 yards. Abraham, who completed his first 17 passes of the Troy game for a school record, hit 79.1 percent of his passes in those two games.
In those two contests, it seemed as if Abraham and Faulkner could do no wrong.
“You go out there and let it ride,” Abraham said of his experience in those games. “You don’t think twice about anything. I’m having probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing this game. Coach Faulkner has put me in outstanding situations to go out and make throws. We have a good chemistry and the O-line is blocking their tails off.”
USM, which travels to Louisiana Tech at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, has C-USA’s second best offense at 444.5 yards a game, a 76.9-yard improvement over 2018, and the conference’s top passing attack at 331.2.
A cohesive staff
Along with the strong relationship that Faulkner has built with Abraham and the entire offense, he has also developed a good chemistry with an offensive staff that has three coaches with play-calling experience — co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Scotty Walden, offensive line coach Ryan Stanchek and running backs coach Chris Buckner. Walden was the only offensive holdover from last year’s staff and tight ends coach Reed Stringer is the most experienced member of the group after stints at Louisiana-Lafayette, Mississippi State and Clemson.
Faulkner relies on all coaches for input in game preparations.
“I’m extremely blessed to be around those guys. They’re awesome,” Faulkner said. “Everybody has a role. I’ve given each coach ownership in what’s going on. Everybody’s got a role. Everybody’s got a piece of the game plan. We sit down and discuss it. One guy may have several ideas that we carry over. One week, he’s got seven. The next week, he may not have any. I strongly welcome ideas. I want them because I think I have great guys in the room with great ideas. Sometimes they come in with an idea that turns into a better idea when we’ve all discussed it.”
Faulkner, who worked only under offensive-minded head coaches previously, has learned to rely on Hopson, a former defensive coordinator, as he analyzes the opponent each week.
“Coach Hopson is one of the smartest men I’ve been around in my entire life,” Faulkner said. “He’s a tireless worker. On a weekly basis, we sit down for at least four hours a week and he’s able to break down the defense and put it in a different light. You see it from their side of view of how to attack things. I think that’s been really good for me.”
Stringer, Buckner and graduate assistant Michael Gibbs are in the booth during games while Faulkner, Walden and Stanchek work the sideline.
While the first seven to 10 plays and most third-down situations are planned out before kickoff, they work together to make adjustments during the course of a game.
“The other night, I credit Reed Stringer for getting us to a certain formation our last touchdown drive,” Faulkner said “He got us that formation and it opened up for four runs for about 50 total yards. We were able to close the game out right there.
“I’m very fortunate to have a great staff around me.”