2012 Southern Miss Preview – Rebuilding
Southern Miss RB Desmond Johnson
Southern Miss RB Desmond Johnson
Posted May 20, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Preview 2012

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By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: Ellis Johnson
First year: 0-0
Returning Lettermen
Off. 22, Def. 18, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 23
Ten Best Southern Miss Players
1. BAN Jamie Collins, Sr.
2. WR Tracey Lampley, Sr.
3. CB Deron Wilson, Jr.
4. LT Jason Weaver, Sr.
5. S Jacorius Cotton, Jr.
6. RB Desmond Johnson, Sr.
7. RB Kendrick Hardy, Jr.
8. DT Khyri Thornton, Jr.
9. LG Joe Duhon, Sr.
10. WR Quentin Pierce, Sr.
2012 Schedule

Sep. 1 at Nebraska
Sep. 15 East Carolina
Sep. 22 at WKU
Sep. 29 Louisville
Oct. 6 Boise State
Oct. 13 at UCF
Oct. 20 Marshall
Oct. 27 at Rice
Nov. 3 UAB
Nov. 10 at SMU
Nov. 17 UTEP
Nov. 24 at Memphis

Having scaled the mountain in 2011, Southern Miss will spend this fall trying to avoid the edge of a cliff.

The Golden Eagles are coming off what was arguably their most memorable season of football over the past century. They won 12 games for the first time in school history, pulled off a stunner on the road to capture the Conference USA title and capped the year with a bowl victory and a Top 25 ranking. However, success at a smaller program rarely comes without a hefty price tag. In the case of Southern Miss, 2011 served as the finale for a slew of talented seniors, including QB Austin Davis, and a launching pad for Larry Fedora to land the head job at North Carolina.

USM is to the East Division what Houston will be to the West, league power brokers facing a slew of changes.

Unlike the Cougars, though, the new head, Ellis Johnson, was not already on staff, and the successor to the record-setting Davis will have virtually no experience when the season begins. Johnson will have a lot to prove in his debut on campus. Sure, he was a terrific defensive coordinator, most recently for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, but he's never had a winning season in four years as a head coach. And many of the Eagles he inherited openly lobbied for offensive coordinator Blake Anderson to get the job after Fedora left for Chapel Hill.

The new staff will have to rely on a cast of upperclassmen, such as Bandit Jamie Collins, LT Jason Weaver and do-it-all playmaker Tracey Lampley, to help provide veteran leadership on the field and in the locker room.

It promises to be a year of transition in Hattiesburg for the defending Conference USA champs, both for the kids and their new coaching staff. For an ultra-consistent program, such as Southern Miss, which hasn't finished below .500 since 1993, Johnson won't get any mulligans this fall. He won't, however, be expected to repeat either.

What to watch for on offense: The ballyhooed arrival of rookie QB Anthony Alford. The true freshman from Petal (Miss.) High School could have chosen to continue his athletic career at Alabama, LSU, Clemson or any number of major problems. He chose to remain in state, in part, because he recognized the opportunity to play immediately. None of the three holdovers to replace Austin Davis, favorite Chris Campbell, Ricky Lloyd or Arsenio Favor, can even approach Alford's upside as a dual-threat. He'll have a lot to learn in August … and a lot to gain if he's able to quickly flatten the learning curve over the summer.

What to watch for on defense: The tackles to take on starring roles. Hey, no one will dispute that Bandit Jamie Collins is the front man of this unit, but it'll be worth monitoring the upward mobility of DT Khyri Thornton and NT Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Both linemen played well during the offseason, especially Nunez-Roches who has the size and strength of a much-needed run-stuffer. As the linebackers regroup on the fly, the middle of the line must be more effective at preventing running plays from extending to the second level. So far, it appears that Thornton and Nunez-Roches will be up to the task.

The team will be far better if… it starts protecting the ball. The Golden Eagles somehow won the 2011 conference championship despite turning the ball over 30 times, including a league-worst 18 fumbles. Southern Miss must get a better grip on the ball, especially now that steadiness and consistency behind center are no longer sure-things. As an unproven quarterback gets broken in, the program can ill-afford the kind of sloppy play that stalls promising drives, and changes the momentum of a game.

The Schedule: The Eagles need to be fully tuned up from Day One going to Nebraska for a winnable non-conference game that Nebraska isn't going to think is a losable non-conference game. With two weeks off to prepare for East Carolina, USM needs to be ready or else it could be a rough first half of the season. With home games against Louisville and Boise State a 1-5 start isn't impossible if the team doesn't have its stuff together. Throw in the road game to UCF, and the goal will be to get through the first half of the year alive. The second half eases up in a big way, but there's a road game at SMU to deal with.

Best offensive player: Senior WR Tracey Lampley. Lampley will be called a wide receiver in 2012, mostly lining up in the slot, but it would be foolish to assign a single position to him. The playmaker does a little bit of everything the Golden Eagles offense. A slippery athlete with the ball in his hands, he finished third on the team in receiving and second as a rusher, accounting for 128 all-purpose yards per game. Never one to be type-casted, Lampley was also named the First Team All-Conference USA punt returner.

Best defensive player: Senior Bandit Jamie Collins. Collins is to Southern Miss what Sammy Brown was to Houston a year ago, a dominant force as a pass-rushing linebacker. The senior is tailor-made for the hybrid Bandit position, an athletic and versatile defender who'll be employed all over the field. As a high-octane freelancer a year, he tallied 98 tackles, 19.5 stops for loss, 6.5 sacks and eight pass breakups. After only receiving honorable mention from Conference USA voters, he has the skills to be the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Chris Campbell. Or whoever eventually gets the ball from head coach Ellis Johnson. While the Golden Eagles don't expect any of the holdovers or newcomers to be Austin Davis, they will still demand consistency and the occasional big play from the quarterback position. With the power ground game that's shaping up in Hattiesburg, Davis' successor won't have to be otherworldly, but the program desperately wants to avoid a revolving door or a controversy once the season kicks off.

The season will be a success if ... the Golden Eagles extend their bowl streak to 11 straight years. The program is certainly capable of once again winning a wide-open East Division, but it would be a reach to make a conference title game appearance the bar after so many key figures from 2011 are no longer around. If the new staff is able to win seven regular season games, and extend the campaign through December, it'll qualify as an appropriate ground floor to build upon in 2013 and beyond.

Key game: Oct. 13 at UCF. Hey, if the Golden Eagles are going to contend for back-to-back Conference USA crowns, there's a very good chance that the Knights will be their biggest stumbling block. USM has owned this series, winning six of seven meetings, but UCF is typically tough to beat at BrightHouse Networks Stadium. If Southern Miss is able to get out of Orlando with a victory, expectations will have to be altered the very next morning.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Average yards per rush: Southern Miss 5.2 – Opponents 3.3
- First quarter scoring: Southern Miss 134 – Opponents 61
- Sacks: Southern Miss 27 - Opponents 17

- 2012 Southern Miss Preview | 2012 Southern Miss Offense
- 2012 Southern Miss Defense | 2012 Southern Miss Depth Chart