With Jay Hopson’s second season as Southern Miss head coach coming to a close, it’s fair to say that the decision to hire the Vicksburg native has proven to be the right one.
Todd Monken abruptly resigned as the USM head coach on Jan. 24 to take over as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bill McGillis, who was then athletic director, and the entire football program were placed in a tight spot less than two weeks before the Feb. 3 signing day.
As January came to a close, multiple national insiders placed Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier as the top candidate to replace Monken.
Instead, Nussmeier reportedly pulled himself from consideration and remained in Gainesville.
Two years later, Hopson is set to coach in his second bowl game at USM and Nussmeier is in search of a job after being let go with most of the Florida staff following Jim McElwain’s firing as head coach.
It got so bad on offense at Florida that McElwain was questioned on whether he would take play-calling duties away from Nussmeier early this season.
Nussmeier faced a great deal of bad luck with the Gators, but the offense regressed toward the end of his tenure there. New Florida head coach Dan Mullen let Nussmeier go in late November as he began to piece together his own staff.
Nussmeier will eventually land on his feet as he always has during his career, but it seems unlikely that he would have panned out as the USM head coach.
A review of the greats
If Southern Miss (8-4) manages to upset Florida State (6-6) in the Dec. 27 Independence Bowl, no USM head coach will have won more games in his first two seasons than Hopson.
Hopson (15-10) is currently tied with Curley Hallman, who went 15-7 from 1988-89. Hallman, who inherited Brett Favre as a sophomore quarterback, went 10-2 and 5-6 in his first two seasons.
A review of some of the most well-regarded coaches in USM history show that several of them went through some tough times before they started consistently winning games.
▪ Jeff Bower was 11-11 and had yet to reach a bowl game after two seasons in 1992.
▪ Bobby Collins also finished his first two seasons at 11-11. He had an 8-3 season and a 3-8 campaign.
▪ P.W. “Bear” Underwood managed to beat Ole Miss and Archie Manning 30-14 in Oxford during his second season, but was just 10-11.
▪ Thad “Pie” Vann, who had a 139-59-2 record at USM as the program’s all-time winningest coach, was 12-10 .
▪ Jim Carmody, who was 37-29 in six seasons, was 14-8.
While Hopson’s teams haven’t always been perfect, they’ve always proven competitive and shown significant progress.
If quarterback Nick Mullens hadn’t battled injuries during the second half of his senior year in 2016, Hopson would likely already be USM’s record holder for most wins through his first two seasons.
In retrospect, the 2016 team also lacked significant depth and size in the front seven on defense.
Hopson and his staff mostly remedied that issue in the span of one year, putting a significantly better defense on the field in 2017.
If this year’s starting quarterback, Kwadra Griggs, had managed to stay healthy in the preseason and avoided a midseason hand injury, Hopson may have added another SEC win to his resume (either over Kentucky or Tennessee) after beating Kentucky in the 2016 season opener.
Hopson has also done a good job of focusing on the recruiting areas that helped build USM into consistent winner in the 1980’s and 90’s. One of his most underrated attributes as a coach is his ability to evaluate talent. As long as he is head coach, USM will continue to identify overlooked gems in the Southeast.
USM is on pace to sign in the neighborhood of 14 players this week during the new early signing period – a mix of high school and junior college players.
Northwest Mississippi Community College quarterback Jack Abraham is set to sign along with two of USM’s top high school commits who happen to both be from Brookhaven – center Trace Clopton and cornerback Jemaurian Jones.
Jones, who is 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, holds offers from Arizona, Florida State, Georgia and Louisville. The 6-foot-2, 292-pound Clopton was also offered by Air Force, Navy, Marshall, Tulane and Memphis.
With players like Jones and Clopton already set to jump on board, Hopson and his staff are well on their way to building another solid class of signees for 2018.
Who: Southern Miss vs. Florida State
When: 12:30 p.m., Dec. 27
Where: Shreveport, La.
Radio: WBUV 104.9 FM