For the 2018 Southern Miss football team to be successful, numerous inexperienced players will have to suddenly step into starring roles.
With so many standouts moving on after the 2017 season, there will be huge gaps to fill on both sides of the ball.
The list of top players wrapping up their eligibility after the 2017 campaign include:
▪ Senior running back Ito Smith — The Mobile native rushed for 4,536 yards and 42 touchdowns. He also caught 140 passes for 1,446 yards and seven scores. As one of the top offensive players in program history, Smith will be the toughest to replace.
▪ Junior receiver Korey Robertson — The Greenwood native was outstanding this year, catching 76 passes for 1,106 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has decided to enter the NFL Draft.
▪ Senior receiver Allenzae Staggers — In two years, he caught 107 passes for 1,636 yards and 12 touchdowns.
▪ Senior safety Tarvarius Moore — His senior year was quietly one of the best by a USM safety in quite some time. He led the team in tackles (87) and interceptions (3). At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Moore is underrated as an NFL prospect.
The list is a long one with USM replacing every starter in the secondary. Also lost on the defense are senior defensive end Xavier Thigpen and two of the team's top tackles — Draper Riley and Rod Crayton.
Some experience is back
Fortunately for USM, there are some established names returning.
On defense, senior defensive end LaDarius Harris will again prove a steady hand. His play on the outside helped make USM a much better team against the run this season.
Redshirt sophomore Racheem Boothe had a strong debut season with 79 tackles and 3.5 sacks at linebacker. He will be part of a linebacking corps that has a chance to be the strength of the defense in 2018.
Redshirt senior Picasso Nelson, who missed the 2017 season due to injury, will also be back in the fold and he can play the nickel or safety.
On offense, redshirt senior Kwadra Griggs returns as the starting quarterback. He will face plenty of competition in the spring with junior Keon Howard, sophomore Marcelo Rodriguez and junior college transfer Jack Abraham also expected to compete.
Griggs can't be fully blamed for the poor offensive showing against Florida State in the Independence Bowl. He had to deal with several drops by his receivers and an intense pass rush.
Looking ahead to the 2018 season, there are several players who can step up as stars for USM:
▪ Redshirt junior linebacker Paxton Schrimsher — He could have been listed among the more experienced returners, but we only saw a glimpse of what Schrimsher is capable of in 2017. He moved from outside to inside linebacker about halfway through the season and seemed to find his true home. He made 49 tackles and led the team with 5.5 sacks. The Athens, Alabama, native has a chance to emerge as one of the team's best players in 2018. Along with redshirt senior Jeremy Sangster and Boothe, USM will have a strong group of linebackers.
▪ Redshirt sophomore cornerback Rachuan Mitchell — With both starting corners graduating, Mitchell is the only cornerback with significant experience. He showed great promise at times, but he will be expected to step it up a notch. He played in 12 games and accounted for 24 tackles.
▪ Sophomore receiver Tim Jones — Redshirt sophomore Quez Watkins showed the potential to be a game-breaker with plenty of speed after catching 23 passes for 337 yards and two scores. However, Jones may see more balls thrown his way as a sure-handed option on the outside. The Biloxi native caught five passes for 121 yards and one touchdown as he saw more snaps late in the season. With Robertson and Staggers moving on, Jones has a good chance to be USM's leading receiver in 2018.
▪ Redshirt senior running back George Payne — By far the most experienced of the players on this list after missing his redshirt senior season with a hip injury, USM head coach Jay Hopson expects the Mobile native to be granted another year of eligibility. If he returns fully healthy, he has a chance to be the leader of the USM rushing attack with 232 career rushes for 940 yards and nine touchdowns.
▪ Redshirt senior running back Tez Parks – He has all the ability in the world and he should finally get enough touches to put up good numbers.
▪ Redshirt sophomore defensive end Jacques Turner – The D'Iberville native made a strong first impression, earning a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman squad. He is a versatile player who has a good chance to be a starter in 2018.