The statistical rankings for the Southern Miss defense a year ago painted a confusing picture.
The Golden Eagles ranked 15th in the nation in total defense (324.8 ypg), but stood 74th in scoring defense (29.3).
Those two stats don’t quite add up, but they make more sense when you consider USM ranked 124th in the nation in turnovers lost — 32. If your defense is consistently put in a bad position, the more points it will allow.
While you can’t fully lay the blame on the USM defense for the team failing to meet expectations during a 7-6 campaign in 2016, there are obvious areas where the unit has to improve.
There were far too many instances of running backs breaking off big runs against the Golden Eagles last year. The 55-32 loss at UTSA stands out as one nightmarish example with the Roadrunners rushing 35 times for 339 yards and six touchdowns.
USM head coach Jay Hopson points to an undersized defensive line as part of the reason for his team’s struggles against the ground game.
“There were times last year, due to injuries, where we averaged 237-240 pounds across the front,” he said.
Draper Riley, now a redshirt senior, was expected to play the role of run stuffer at defensive tackle last season, but he missed the first six games due to an injury and was never quite 100 percent after he returned.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Riley is now fully healthy and won’t be the only big body in the middle of the defensive line. He’ll be joined by junior college transfer Delmond Landry (6-4, 305) and freshman Andrew Cole (6-4, 318). Landry has had a good fall camp and coaches haven’t been shy about mentioning Cole, a true freshman from Somerville, Tennessee.
The Golden Eagles had other linemen bulk up in the offseason. Defensive end/tackle Derrick Dixon, who stands 6-3, is hovering around 280 pounds and redshirt freshman defensive end Jacques Turner has put on good weight and now stands 6-1, 260.
The 6-foot-1, 280-pound LaDarius Harris, who started six games a year ago, should step in for the graduated Dylan Bradley alongside Riley on the interior.
While several Golden Eagles have packed on the pounds, USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro is excited about one player who has dropped the weight — redshirt senior defensive tackle Rod Crayton.
“I told him the other day, ‘Rod, I’m extremely proud of you,’” Pecoraro said. “He played football at 320 pounds last year and his attitude is not close to where it was last year. He did a switch in the spring and transformed his body and attitude. He comes to work every single day.”
Crayton is now listed at 6-1, 287 and will factor in heavily in the defensive tackle rotation.
Rushing the passer
USM proved it could get after the quarterback with 34 sacks last season. That should be the case again this season with redshirt senior Xavier Thigpen, who has 9.5 career sacks, back as a starter.
Another player with plenty of starting experience, Darian Yancey, will work in with Thigpen at the bandit end while redshirt sophomore Paxton Schrimsher and senior Allen Fails are fighting for playing time at the “Wolf” position.
If the line holds up this season, the Golden Eagles should be more well rounded as a group.
When USM opens the season Sept. 2 against Kentucky in Hattiesburg, Pecoraro believes he’ll have plenty of options to work with in his front four.
“We feel like we have a good 10-man rotation,” he said.