Southern Miss linebacker C.J. Perry played in seven games last season, making two tackles.
In the Heart of Dallas Bowl, he was not listed on the Golden Eagles’ two-deep depth chart.
But early this week, USM released its probable starters for Saturday’s game at Kentucky and guess who is listed first at mike linebacker? Yep, C.J. Perry.
The rise of Perry is truly one of the key Southern Miss football stories in the past year, attributable to his improvement, the departure of last season’s starting linebackers and the new coaching staff.
“My freshman year I had a little bit of success, but then things started going downhill from my sophomore year to my junior year,” said Perry, a 6-foot, 233-pound senior who worked at both mike and will linebacker last season. “It was a combination of things. I stayed in the fight, kept working hard, kept believing in myself and my ability.
“This summer and spring, it has all been paying off for me so I’m really thankful for the opportunity I’ve been given.”
Last season, Brian Anderson started at mike linebacker for the Golden Eagles, and he drew praise for his run-stopping ability and other play noticeable mainly to the coaching staff.
But with Anderson graduated, USM hopes that Perry can step in, be a leader and clog up the middle.
“He’s an extremely smart football player,” Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “He’s a linebacker that studies the game. He’s a good communicator. Those are things I look for in a linebacker, so he’s done a great job for us so far.”
Being smart is one thing, stopping Kentucky running back Stanley “Boom” Williams is another. Williams averaged 7.1 yards per carry last season.
But Perry thinks he’s capable.
“Once you stop the run, that limits the offense,” he said. “That’s one of our main focuses, to stop the run first and then stop everything else. Us as
linebackers, that’s one thing we’re trying to work on this week, stopping the run first and then let the back end handle the back end, let the secondary handle the pass.
“We’re going to help with the pass, obviously, but that’s one thing our coach mentioned to us this week is to try to stop the run because they do have a very, very good running back over there.”
Perry knows he will be in the middle of some of Kentucky’s running plays, but says he won’t be alone.
“It’s not only me but the whole linebacker corps,” he said. “And it starts up front with the D-line. It starts up front with the front seven being committed to stop the run. It’s a great challenge for a defense, against somebody who has a great running back, to be able to stop the run. That’s something we look forward to this week.”
Perry played in every game as a freshman and sophomore, then saw little time as a junior. This year, he’s ready for all the games, in every facet.
“Linebacker to me is just like a quarterback to the offense,” he said. “So I think I’m the quarterback of the defense. I have to get everybody lined up and get everybody set. You can’t not be smart and play linebacker on this level.”
He’ll get that chance Saturday night.