Keeping Score

A close look at USM's ground game

New Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken said in the spring that he expected the running backs to be the strength of his offense, and it appears that will likely be the case this season.

The Golden Eagles have four running backs who have shown the potential of being impact players at the Division I level.

Monken has the reputation of being a pass-happy offensive coordinator, but he will use the players he has available. If he has to build an offense around a strong stable of running backs, that's what he will do.

The former staff did a poor of putting an offensive scheme together that relied on the unit's strengths. Monken will not make the same mistake.

USM's running back options:

* KENDRICK HARDY - The most experienced back in the group, Hardy led USM in rushing as a redshirt freshman in 2010 with 903 yards on 139 carries. He has yet to replicate that performance over the last two years because of injuries and insufficient playing time. He struggled early on at pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield, but those aren't problems at this point in his career.

Hardy suffered a knee injury at the midway point of his sophomore season when he had 426 yards on 72 carries. Last year, he was strangely absent from the offense with 30 carries for 151 yards in 10 games.

During his USM career, Hardy is averaging 6.1 yards per rush. That's a number that nearly every other college running back would love to have. Monken praised Hardy in the spring, and he should get a fair share of the carries this season.

* JEREMY HESTER - At 5-foot-6, 177 pounds, Hester has good speed and incredible power for a man his size. He's fun to watch and always seems to make things happen when he's on the field. He had good moments as a sophomore, rushing for 118 yards at Navy.

He has yet to prove himself as a player who can produce every Saturday, but he's a hard-charging back that had a good spring. Coming off a 46-carry, 196-yard season, Hester should have a spot in the rotation this fall.

* JALEN RICHARD - Former quarterback Anthony Alford entered the 2012 season as the team's most heralded freshman, but Richard ended up being the most capable freshman on offense. He had an 87-yard game against a good UCF defense and an 82-yard effort against UAB.

Richard is likely the most complete back for USM at 5-foot-8, 205 pounds. He rushed for 426 yards on 87 carries and four touchdowns last year. He was limited by injuries in the spring, but he has the opportunity to earn the top spot in the fall if he can stay healthy.

* TYRE BRACKEN - Although he had limited opportunities as a true freshman in 2012, Bracken showed flashes of being a future standout during scrimmages. He's fast and shifty. Bracken didn't make the same splash as a freshman that former USM receiver/running back Tracy Lampley did, but he's a similar player.

Expect Monken to find Bracken a spot in the offense, potentially as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He caught a pair of touchdown passes last year. He played on the Class 1A level in high school in Louisiana and another year of experience will help him.

* BRUCE JOHNSON - Primarily used as a blocker during his time at USM, it will be interesting to see where the senior lands in Monken's offense. It's unlikely the fullback will be used as a runner unless the injuries pile up.

* GEORGE PAYNE - A true freshman from St. Luke's in Mobile, he has a good build at 6-foot, 205 pounds. He put up big numbers in high school, but he played on a Class 1A team and will likely need some time to adjust.