C-USA state of the program: Southern Miss

I cannot be the only person who thought that Todd Monken looked about 5 years older at the end of the 2013 season than at the beginning. That said, a season of relentless losing ended with a win, a sign of an upward trajectory. Almost as importantly, it stopped southern miss from being the answer to the question “who has currently the longest losing streak in FBS college football”.

Southern Miss had the same record as FIU last season. It even lost to FIU. Yet it feels as if the thing being built in Hattiesburg has more direction and is more stable. And winning the last game helps going into the off season with a feeling of improvement happening -even, or maybe especially – when the team is 1-11 and 1-23 over the last 2 seasons. And it was an extremely young and inexperienced team. That said: this was still a team that was hopelessly outgunned in most games and also lost to some of its weakest conference mates

Last Season

Date Opponent

Aug. 31 Texas State Bobcats Lost 22-15

Sept. 7 at Nebraska Cornhuskers Lost 56-13

Sept. 14 at Arkansas Razorbacks Lost 24-3

Sept. 28 at Boise State Broncos Lost 60-7

Oct. 5 FIU Golden Panthers Lost 24-23

Oct. 19 at East Carolina Pirates Lost 55-14

Oct. 26 North Texas Mean Green Lost 55-14

Nov. 2 at Marshall Thundering Herd Lost 61-13

Nov. 9 at Louisiana Tech Bulldogs Lost 36-13

Nov. 16 Florida Atlantic Owls Lost 41-7

Nov. 23 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders Lost 42-21

Nov. 30 at UAB Blazers Won 62-27

Record 1-11

F+/- overall: 120th Offense: 121th, defense 102th, special teams: 108th. High point: Clearly the win at seasons end against UAB. Not only did it end the infamous losing streak. It was a decisive 35 point win and ended the year on a note of hope. Low point: Although there are a lot of blowout options here, (southern miss lost by 40 or more points 5 times), it is the loss at home against FIU to me. FIU was winless at the time, and losing at home to a team as bad as FIU has to make you feel like you are the bottom of the barrel. 2013 all conference players: 1 (second team), 2 honorable mentions returning all conference players: 2 honorable mentions 2013 all conference freshman: 3

Coaching (history):

That a single, otherwise meaningless win at the end of the season shows progress, is a sign of how far USM has fallen since Coach Graham left at the end of 2011 with a 39-19 overall record never missing a bowl and winning 2 of them, and most importantly, going 12-2 and winning the conference east division in his last season. And then came the abyss.

The truth is, that head coaching hires are always somewhat of a crap shoot, particularly if the man in question never was a head coach before. Ellis Johnson sure had all the lines on the resume to make him a premier candidate from the elite coordinator pool. And then he went 0-12 with a team full of young players but decently high in expectations, a turnaround for the history books, just of the wrong kind. It appears that he also lost the team somewhere during the season. In any case he got canned after only one season. But sometimes you can’t even judge a mans qualities as a head coach from what he does after. In a somewhat cruel twist of irony Ellis Johnson has since rebounded nicely and was the defensive coordinator on the Auburn team that famously beat Alabama and went to the national championship game last season. And USM is still paying him on top of what he gets there. I doubt he weill ever get a shot at being a HC again, but it sure looks like he will remain sucessful in the spotlight of big conference teams challenging for titles, just to rub salt in the would and perpetually remind USM fans of how colossally all went wrong and sow some tiny grain of doubt, whether USM might not have been to trigger happy after all.

That said, even at the time many people wondered if a defensive minded coach was the right fit for USM. So when Johnson got fired -and the USM supporters were largely on board with this – many of the USM faithful were hoping that the return of Todd Monken – offensive coordinator under Larry Fedora, would lead the players back to what they already knew previously- an offensive minded system with success.

Offense: 8 starters returning (1 QB ,1 RB, 4 OL, 2WR)

Offense was definitely not Southern Miss’ strong side last season. That said, Southern Miss had 3 offensive players on a 14 team leagues all freshman team. Youth was abundant in other words. And it showed on some fundamentals. Like holding on to the ball. Southern Miss had 38 turnovers, which easily was the worst effort in FBS. And most of that was caused from throwing interceptions, of which there were 26.

A lot of the struggles had to do with a line that was not really ready for FBS. But it would be unfair to pin all of the problems on the line. Quarterback play for one was definitely sub par even when accounting or the lines struggles.

The season started off with a really tough out of conference slate during most of which redshirt senior transfer Allan Bridgford played QB. And he struggled. So when Nick Mullens, a true Freshmen took over the position mid season, he was not actually much of a downgrade despite his own struggles. He was very much hit or miss, just that he missed a bit too often, but when he hit the target, he hit it. He kept the atrocious interception rate going (14 on 276 attempts) while averaging 49% completion rate, but at least there were on average 13 yards per completion, so a completed pass usually meant a first down. The problem was that he also suffered 25 sacks – about one per 11 pass attempts, and given that Allan Bridgford was considerably better in that department against better competition, this should at least be partially attributed to Nick Mullens and a seeming lack of awareness. Right now it seems Southern Miss coaches are hoping he will get to control this, as it seems his job to lose for the time being.

The 2014 starter for southern Miss will have receivers to work with. There were 6 different players who caught balls for at least 300 yards, and the 3 best of them return. Freshman Tyr’oune Holmes was a decent saftey valve on downs where USM was not behind schedule, and for 3rd and longs, now senior Marqise Triplett proved the best option. Yes he caught only 57% of the balls thrown to him, but he did catch it USM averaged a gain of almost 17 yards. They get supplemented by Marquise Ricard, whose Freshman catch rate at 46% could stand a bit of an improvement. And then there are quite a few other promising players who got playing time last season. And as if this were not enough, this years recruiting class includes 6 (!) wide receivers two of which are junior college players who are supposed to help immeadiately. This part of the offense seems like the one Southern Miss does not really have to worry about, and might get even better in 2015.

Whoever the 2014 quarterback is, he will not be able to count on the departed leader in rushing, Kendrick Hardy. The running backs number 2 to 4 were all sophomores or freshman last season. While they all got a decent amount of carries, none of them could quite match Hardy, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry, which was still half a yard more than any of the others. So this is a position where the available players will have to show they can grow beyond what they were last season. Yes, this is a position that might see quite a bit of growth, but it is dependent on whether the line can start to run block a bit better and because young running backs are developing here. But even if the line does progress it is not a given that he output will be much improved from last season. Line improvement is actually decently probable though. Yes Left Guard Preston was a senior, but most of the rest is scheduled to be back this fall. Now Senior Frederick Moore, Juniors Hill, Greene and Clark as well as sophomore Cameron Tom all return and will be supplemented by several other players who got a good amount of playing time and some starts last season. 10 different players had to start somewhere on the offensive line during the season, which means that the line was not just young, it also had to deal with injuries and lack of opportunities to get used to each other. This means that are is high probability for improvement this season. Still in order to improve things quickly, Todd Monken also recruited 2 junior college players for the offensive line, one of which is a scout 3 star.

That said the O-line was horrible. Run blocking was statistically worse than any other team in the conference. That includes FIU. Even though Southern Miss is definitely a pass first team, that presents a serious problem. It is too easy to key in on receivers if you are not affraid of the backfield getting through the line. On top of that the passers were sacked more than on any other team. That number looks a lot better when one accounts for the fact that southern miss passed a lot more than other teams, but it shows another problem: the next years QB starter will need to be more situation aware than Nick Mullens was this season. Growth on the O-line seems necessary, growth seems probable. If run blocking does not improve however, Southern Miss is doomed to stay one dimensional. If southern Miss wants to move towards bowl eligibility, a big jump here is needed.

Defense: 8 starters returning

Southern Miss’ defense was actually quite ok last year. Particularly on first down, and particularly against the run. The problem was, that even if they fell behind schedule, opposing offenses always had good chances of picking up the needed yardage with a pass on second or third down. The reason for that was a combination of a lack of pass rush from the front seven, and lots of inexperience among the defensive backs. Still, if you give yourself enough third and longs you are gonna get off the field sometimes. It just was not enough for USM to make up for its offensive woes. USM will switch to 4-3 from the previous 4-2-2-3. For north Texas fans the reason why might be interesting. Defensive coordinator Dave Duggan explained it thusly: ” “North Texas is more power,” Duggan said. “Last year, when we played Arkansas, Nebraska and Boise State, we needed guys that are bigger, stronger and more physical on the perimeter. North Texas is a good football team.”

The golden eagles’ d-line was pretty sturdy against the run in 2013. Yes it sold out a bit to defend the pass on 3rd and long, but it did manage decently often (20% of all tries) to stop the runner before crossing the line. It was downright stingy against the run on “standard downs” (downs that are close enough so you are not limited if you want to pass or run as an offense), where it allowed only 2.61 yards on average. The problem is, that there was no pass rush to speak of, that came with this decent run blocking. On standard downs it was not great, but when opponents found themselves in 3rd and long, they chose to pass, and southern miss almost never got to the quarterback in those situations. I am actually thinking that the decision to change the scheme might primarily be to change the pass rush problem rather than to defend better against the power run.

For next season the defensive line only loses one starter, Khyri Thornton, and that seems to be a pretty replacable part. The players returning bring some experience, as end Michael Smith (Junior) takles Williams (now a senior), Nunez-Roches and Freeman (Juniors) all got starts, and Dasman McCullum (Senior) managed 10.5 tackles for loss. The Confluence of Juniors suggests that the D-Line will hit its peak in 2015. What I see suggests to me that there will be very decent improvement already in 2014. Yes none of those players was a leader in tackles, but that was not their primary job. They did manage to hold up runners long enough for linebackers to pick those players up before they got far. Now if they can add creases for those linebackers to get through to the passer, that might allow this defense to get really salty. But then again, it might take some time to adapt to the scheme change.

All defensive backs who logged significant time last year return, and only one will be a senior this season. And the youth showed. It is usually not a good sign when the leader in tackles (now junior Debarrius Miller) is a safety who has only 5 passes broken up, even if he moves to the spur position for the last 4 games. It either means he managed to fly to where passes kept getting caught all the time, or that opposing offenses kept picking on him and kept getting away with it. But just in general safetys are usually far away from the line of scrimmage and if they are tackling, it usually means the opponent just made a decent gain. Of course the lack of a pass rush did not help these rather inexperienced defensive backs.

USM can take its inside linebackers from last season, several of whom got starting experience, and run with that. Everyone except Dylan Reda returns, and the team had already gotten used to playing without him. The situation at the end of last season was no easier since Alan Howze who could only play the first 4 games. This led to some young players like Terrick Wright having to step up and having to make a lot of tackles. While it did not always go well, it could also have gone worse. The ILBs are sure to have played a big role in the ok run defense numbers for USM. With the outside linebackers on the other hand the situation is not so clear. None of them really emerged as a pass rush threat last season, and toward the end of the season the afformentioned Miller had to play the spur position. From the spring roster I take it, that he is intended to play more safety again this season. This leaves a bit of a hole, as Bandit starter Thomas graduated. With the change to a 4-3 I assume it will be an ILB who will move to the outside. But there still seems no obvious answer to what linebacker is capable of hounding the opposing QB on a regular basis.

Recruits:

Southern miss had a normal sized class, and it was pretty much in the middle of C-USA recruiting rankings, with kids mainly coming out of Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. Generally the place where USM managed to recruit the most touted recruits is the defensive line. There are 4 junior college recruits 2 are wide receivers, where the class was generally nuemrous, and 2 are on the offensive line.

On a side note: What hurts particularly is that USM got J.T. Daniels, ranked 101st among defensive tackles, right out of Ryan high school in UNTs immeadiate backyard.

2014 Schedule

Apr. 19 Black & Gold Spring Game

Aug. 30 at Mississippi State Bulldogs

Sept. 6 Alcorn State Braves

Sept. 13 at Alabama Crimson Tide

Sept. 20 Appalachian State Mountaineers

Sept. 27 Rice Owls

Oct. 4 at Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Oct. 18 at North Texas Mean Green

Oct. 25 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Nov. 1 at UTEP Miners

Nov. 8 Marshall Thundering Herd

Nov. 15 at UTSA Roadrunners

Nov. 29 UAB Blazers

Key Game: I is either UTEP or UAB. Those games will show whether and how fast USM is progressing.

The look forward: Despite trips to Alabama and Mississippi state, this years out of conference schedule is actually easier than last years brutal OOC slate, as it contains games against FBS neophyte appalachian state and against FCS Alcorn State. USM needs to have both of those for its self esteem. Then follows a stretch of mostly difficult conference games until UTEP and later UAB will be the opponents. Southern Miss is another team that feels like it has nowhere to go but up. How much the added experience will provide in wins is hard to say though. If USM wants to make real strides towards bowl eligibility it needs improved offensive line play and improved quarterback play. Particularly the latter seems iffy. And it cannot regress on defense. Despite more experience returning, that option remains on the table, particularly with the change to 4-3 and the adapting this will ask of the players. With an upset somewhere this team could get to 5 or even 6, but with an upset in the wrong direction this could easily be another 1 or 2 win seson. To split the difference Ill call 3 or 4 probable.

What it means for the University of North Texas: The game when southern Miss visits Apogee, should be another great opportunity to pick up a win.

p.s. I would like to thank Bill Connelly for having made a lot of reeeeaaaallly interesting data available to the broad public. If you are remotely interested in in-depth college football stats, head on over to his site on SBNation.