High School Sports

USM won only one game his freshman year, but now ‘we’re kind of back on top’

Southern Miss safeties Jomez Applewhite (7) and Tarvarius Moore (18) make a play on defense against Kentucky on Sept. 2 in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss safeties Jomez Applewhite (7) and Tarvarius Moore (18) make a play on defense against Kentucky on Sept. 2 in Hattiesburg. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com File

Defensive back Jomez Applewhite walked down a long road in his five years at Southern Miss.

Sometimes it was a nice journey. Other times, not so much.

But he stuck it out and became a key player on defense in this, his redshirt senior season.

“The lowest point of my career at USM was probably the 1-11 year (in 2013),” Applewhite said. “But we ended that season on a high note when we beat UAB.

“The highest point would probably be the 9-5 year (2015) when we almost won conference and won the West Division.”

The 2013 season began with 11 straight losses under first-year head coach Todd Monken. Five opponents scored 55 points or more against the Golden Eagles. But in the final game, at Birmingham, Ala., Southern Miss clicked, winning 62-27 over UAB and setting the stage for things to come.

USM went 3-8 in 2015, then the next season reeled off six wins in a row at the end of the regular season before playing Western Kentucky for the Conference USA championship and Washington in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.

“I’ve been here so long, from 1-11, and now we’re kind of back on top now,” the deep-voiced Applewhite said. “It’s been a long circle.”

For sure, Applewhite has contributed in a major way this season, after not playing much in his underclass days on the team. He has started every game this year at the rover position, one who defends passes but also must come up to stop the run.

Applewhite is third on the team in tackles with 54 total, 28 unassisted and 26 assisted. He has one interception, two pass breakups and 3.0 tackles for loss.

“Jomez has been steady every single week for us,” USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “He’s a guy that we ask a lot out of. He’s playing the deep ball, he’s making tackles at the line of scrimmage, he’s doing everything for us. He’s been a huge asset for us. I wish we could have him back another year.”

A former quarterback at Bassfield High School, it took Applewhite a while to excel at a new position at the college level.

“He didn’t play a ton last year, he got in the mix a little bit late in the year,” Pecoraro said. “He started to flourish a little bit late last year and he’s had a good year this year. He’s a guy you wish you had just a little bit more time with because you could see the light bulb really clicking. We’ve just got to make sure we take advantage of the time we have left with him.”

Applewhite, whose father, Joseph Applewhite, played tight end in high school and whose uncle, Chiron Applewhite, played quarterback at Grambling State, said that being a good college defensive player takes more than just being a fast runner.

“It’s hours and hours of film study and calculating what your opponent might do or might not do,” he said.

“My biggest strength is playing the pass. I still can fit the line, if need be. I can make all the checks and make sure the defense is in the right sets.”

At 2 p.m. Saturday, Applewhite and his fellow seniors will play their last game at M.M. Roberts Stadium when the Golden Eagles host Charlotte in a Conference USA game.

Applewhite hopes to put on a good show this week and next, at Marshall, and then reap the benefits of a good season.

“Now we’re trying to see what bowl we’re going to,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll go to the Bahamas for a little vacation!”

But wherever the team goes for a bowl, the biological science major looks at his stay at Southern Miss as a positive experience.

“It made me grow as a person to know that you could persevere through anything,” Applewhite said. “Even in your bad times, it’s like a shining star at the end.”

Game plan

Who: Charlotte vs. Southern Miss

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg

Radio: WBUV 104.9-FM