2014 CFN Preview: Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Southern Miss S Jacorius Cotton
Southern Miss S Jacorius Cotton
Posted Jul 5, 2014

Preview 2014 - The stability is there, but the wins have to follow. (Getty Images)

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Preview 2014

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By Rich Cirminiello
- 2014 Southern Miss Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Todd Monken
Second year: 1-11
Returning Lettermen
Off. 25, Def. 28, ST 5
Lettermen Lost: 24
Ten Best USM Players
1. LB Alan Howze, Sr.
2. S Jacorius Cotton, Sr.
3. DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Sr.
4. S DeBarriaus Miller, Jr.
5. LB Terrick Wright, Jr.
6. WR Tyre'oune Holmes, Soph.
7. QB Nick Mullens, Soph.
8. WR D.J. Thompson, Soph.
9. RB Jalen Richard, Jr.
10. CB Kalan Reed, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 at Miss State
Sep. 6 Alcorn State
Sep. 13 at Alabama
Sep. 20 Appalachian State
Sep. 27 Rice
Oct. 4 at Middle Tennessee
Oct. 18 at North Texas
Oct. 25 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 1 at UTEP
Nov. 8 Marshall
Nov. 15 at UTSA
Nov. 29 UAB

The Golden Eagles will begin 2014 with a one-game winning streak … and much-needed stability on the sidelines.

While Southern Miss was dreadful for a second-straight season, going 1-11, this offseason has had a slightly more positive feel to it than did the previous one. While the Eagles only won a single game, it was in the finale, snapping a 23-game losing streak to provide some momentum to carry into 2014. And unlike a year ago, the school will not be breaking in a new staff of coaches. Ellis Johnson got the boot out of Hattiesburg after just one season, but successor Todd Monken is back for 2014, with designs on methodically making USM competitive again.

Monken and his staff have a long road ahead, and they know it. But progress is likely, even if the gains aren't always measured by the standings. Eight starters return to both sides of the ball, and three pivotal defenders, LB Alan Howze, DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches and S Jacorius Cotton, are back after missing all or most of 2013. But it's a young quarterback whose development will dictate how much progress Southern Miss makes in 2014.

Monken was a Golden Eagle rookie last year. So, too, was QB Nick Mullens, who seized the starting job midway through his first year. As expected, he struggled, though the trial by fire should pay dividends in the fall. For Monken's attack to succeed, Southern Miss will require competence behind center, which has eluded the program the past two seasons.

The defense ought to be better, if for no other reason than it can't be much worse than it was in 2013. The Eagles weren't even close most weekends last fall, losing by an average score of 42-17, and giving up at least 55 points in five separate games. However, from that tattered group, the top five tacklers return, and there's no overstating the importance of having access to the leadership of Howze, Nunez-Roches and Cotton for one final year.

Baby steps. It's the unit of measurement these days in Hattiesburg for a program that's gone 1-23 over the past two seasons. Nevertheless, the upperclassmen remember that it was just three short years ago that Southern Miss won 12 games and the Conference USA title. Yeah, it's a long road to the top, but the Eagles appreciate the direction they're headed now that Monken and his assistants are digging their heels in for a second year on the sidelines.

What to watch for on offense: The receivers will help raise the level of QB Nick Mullens' play. Mullens is in just his second year, with a ton to learn. He'll be helped along, though, this season by a capable staff and an underrated corps of receivers. Not only do last year's top two pass-catchers, Tyre'oune Holmes and Markese Triplett, return, but sophomore D.J. Thompson has performed this offseason as if he plans to be the best of the bunch. He was at times unstoppable, a welcome development for a program craving a field-stretcher.

What to watch for on defense: Fewer blown assignments. The Golden Eagles were young and often out of position in 2013. With so many members of the two-deep back, the D can't help but be more consistent this fall. Plus, now that seniors Alan Howze, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Jacorius Cotton are set to resume their careers after being shelved last fall, Southern Miss will get an instant infusion of leadership and know-how. If the D-line is able to generate more pressure than it did last fall, USM is liable to be a pleasant surprise on defense in 2014.

The team will be far better if… it gets off to faster starts. Hey, there's no area that Southern Miss can't improve upon, including special teams. But everyone is going to benefit if the team doesn't start each game in a massive hole. In a dozen games last year, the Golden Eagles were outscored in the opening frame, 134-24. That's an average of two first-quarter points per game. If the team can simply hang around and gain confidence in the first 30 minutes, there's no telling what they might be able to pull out in the second-half.

The Schedule: Just how quickly have the Golden Eagles turned things around? They'll find out right away at Mississippi State how good they are, and lurking is the road trip to Alabama. Fortunately, in between is a winner against Alcorn State, and Appalachian State at home isn't bad before kicking off the C-USA season against defending champion, Rice. Three road games in four won't make for a fun midseason, but closing out with Marshall and UAB at home - even if playing a loaded Herd team from the Atlantic won't be great - could help. There's no Western Kentucky from the East, but playing Marshall and Middle Tennessee is a bad break.

Best offensive player: Sophomore WR Tyre'oune Holmes. The fact that Holmes is already USM's best offensive player is testament to his skill set … and to the dearth of top-flight talent in Hattiesburg. Holmes enjoyed an auspicious debut as an Eagle, leading the team in receptions in 2013. Since he operates from the slot, he'll be running the kinds of routes that won't stretch the arm strength of developing QB Nick Mullens. In other words, Holmes will be given plenty of chances to turn short hitches into long gains.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Alan Howze. Howze is the leader of a trio of Golden Eagle seniors returning to the D after missing all or most of 2013. The one-time running back was embarking on his second season on defense, when he was shut down by an injury. He'll continue his development this fall as one of the steady performers of a unit that was routinely trucked a year ago. Howze's toughness and attention to detail will be apparent whenever he's on the field this season.

Key players to a successful season: Sophomore QB Nick Mullens. He doesn't have to be former Eagle Austin Davis yet. And he sure doesn't have to be perfect. He does, however, have to evolve from his rookie season, when he completed less than 50% of his passes. Head coach Todd Monken has had dangerous offenses wherever he was as an assistant. He has lofty goals in Hattiesburg, too, but it'll be up to the second-year Mullens to execute the gameplan, with fewer mistakes and more connections downfield.

The season will be a success if ... the Golden Eagles are a dangerous Conference USA team in November. Wins matter, of course, but not so much for a school that boasts just a single victory over UAB in the last two years. These days, growth will be measured as much by competitiveness as anything else. If Southern Miss amasses a head of steam that it can use as a launching point for 2015, this season will be a success. And if it comes in the form of a 3-9 mark, so be it.

Key game: Oct. 25 vs. Louisiana Tech. By this point in the 2014 season, Southern Miss ought to be playing at a higher level than it does in the opener with Mississippi State. The Golden Eagles should also be battle-tested, having already faced two SEC teams and defending Conference USA champ Rice. The upcoming season is all about erasing the memory of last year and improving over time. If USM is heading in the right direction, it should be evident by the end of October.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Scoring: Southern Miss 503 – Opponents 205
- Rushing yards per game: Southern Miss 72.9 – Opponents 224.6
- Sacks: Southern Miss 36 - Opponents 13

- 2014 Southern Miss Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

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