Southern Miss

5 reasons Southern Miss football will keep winning in 2016

By PATRICK MAGEE

pmagee@sunherald.com

Twitter: @Patrick_Magee

MICHAEL NOBLE JR./ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nick Mullens is back for his fourth season as the starting quarterback at Southern Miss.
MICHAEL NOBLE JR./ASSOCIATED PRESS Nick Mullens is back for his fourth season as the starting quarterback at Southern Miss.

The arrival of a new head coach always brings uncertainty, but Jay Hopson inherits a talented Southern Miss football team coming off a 9-5 campaign.

Spring has arrived for the Golden Eagles with the start of practice in Hattiesburg on Tuesday.

There's plenty to accomplish between now and the Sept. 3 season opener at Kentucky, but there's also reason to believe USM should be a contender in Conference USA.

Here are five reasons that USM won't miss a beat under Hopson in his first year on the job:

1. Senior Nick Mullens is back at quarterback: This is, of course, the most obvious reason that the Golden Eagles are poised to compete in C-USA. Mullens was outstanding as a junior, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a record-breaking season. He loses his top two receivers in Mike Thomas and Casey Martin, but he does return senior D.J. Thompson and talented sophomore Korey Robertson.

2. The defense should improve: Hopson's background is on the defensive side of the ball as a former coordinator at USM and Memphis. Expect Hopson to play a large role in developing the team's defense along with coordinator Tony Pecoraro. The defensive line and secondary return plenty of talent. As long as USM can develop quality depth at linebacker, USM has a good shot to take a step forward on defense.

3. All-Purpose Ito is set to take off: Ito Smith had an incredible sophomore season, accounting for 1,876 total yards and 13 touchdowns. Following the graduation of fellow running back Jalen Richard, Smith becomes the focal point of the USM ground game. Smith has a chance to become the most feared running back in C-USA in 2016.

4. Strong up front: The USM defensive line may be the best in C-USA in 2016 with Dylan Bradley and Darian Yancey back as starters at the two defensive ends and several key contributors back at defensive tackle. Bradley and Yancey will be pushed by plenty of talented ends like Naim Mustafaa, Xavier Thigpen and Ja'Boree Poole. USM should also be strong along the line on offense with three starters back on the interior – First-team All-C-USA center Cameron Tom, right guard Oliver Bates and left guard Brandon Farmer.

5. Hopson's a winner: Some coaches are meant to be the top guy. Hopson developed a solid reputation as an assistant coach and recruiter with stops at Michigan, Memphis, Ole Miss, USM and Marshall. When he received his shot to become a head coach at Alcorn State in 2012, he went 32-17 with two conference titles in four years on the job. Hopson was a good assistant, but he may be a better fit as a head coach.

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