As is custom at media day for any college football team, it was all broad smiles and optimism at Southern Miss on Saturday.
While the return of senior quarterback Nick Mullens and several impact players provides good reason to be upbeat, that bright outlook also has a good deal to do with the impression that first-year head coach Jay Hopson and his staff have made on the players.
The term “Player's coach” was used Sunday when referring to Hopson, who spent the last four years as head coach at Alcorn State. While some coaches may cringe at the label, Hopson embraces it.
“I am a player's coach,” Hopson said. “I believe a coach's job goes above and beyond a win or a loss. At the end of the day, when those guys are 45 years old, I want them to stop by while I'm fishing in Bovina. I want them to say, 'I want to stop by and see coach Hop and see what he's up to today.' The bottom line is if they're successful when they're 40, I've done my job.”
Hopson has always been known as a coach who is loved by his players, making a positive impression on USM in each of his two previous stops on the staff, 2001-03 as defensive backs coach and 2005-07 as defensive coordinator.
The fact that the players have warmed so well to Hopson is a significant step in the right direction. In 2012, Ellis Johnson never convinced the entire team to jump on board.
The sales pitch ended a long time ago for Hopson.
Freeman steps up at left tackle
Not long after Hopson got to Hattiesburg one of his first sales jobs had to come with senior defensive lineman Wil Freeman.
Although the 6-foot-6 Freeman had never played on the offensive line, Hopson saw the potential for the former Northwest Rankin star to become a solid left tackle.
“He looked at me and said, “Wil, how do you feel about playing left tackle?,'” Freeman recalled Saturday. “I looked at him and I was like, 'Um, I guess. If we need me there and it's really thin in the spring.' I walked away thinking there's no way I'm doing this. The next day I've got a white jersey in my locker.”
The 275-pound Freeman is now the first-string left tackle and on pace to being the starter when the Golden Eagles start the season at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 3 at Kentucky.
Hopson said that Freeman could also see some spot duty on the defensive line this season, but the move to offensive tackle has gone better than expected.
“I hated going against him on defense because he batted just about every one of my passes down,” Mullens said with a laugh. “Now that he's on my side, I love it. He's a great guy. Everybody knows what to expect out of him. He's going to work hard. He's going to do his assignment. I think with him, the chemistry on the O-line will just keep going.”
Running back situation
Not every bit of news out of Sunday's media day was good for the Golden Eagles.
Hopson acknowledged that redshirt freshman running back Patrick Brooks is unlikely to play this season due to a hip injury.
Brooks was expected to play a significant role in the USM offense as a running back who could replace junior starter Ito Smith and provide many of his same attributes as a shifty back who catches the ball well out of the backfield.
The No. 2 man on the depth chart at running back now appears to be redshirt junior George Payne, who ran seven times for 84 yards and a touchdown in Saturday morning's scrimmage. Redshirt sophomore Tez Parks and true freshman Andre Hale II also appear likely to get touches this season.
“I thought today George had a big day, which is good,” Hopson said. “George is coming off (a knee) injury and Tez is coming off (a knee) injury. We've just got to continue to build depth there.”
Junior receiver Isaiah Jones also had a standout performance during Saturday's scrimmage, catching five passes for 72 yards and three scores.