Miss Golden Eagles
Preview 2007 - Defense
2007 Southern Miss Preview
2007 USM Offense Preview
2007 USM Depth Chart
2006 CFN Southern
need to know:
The “Nasty Bunch” defense that’s become the trademark of
Southern Miss football under Jeff Bower should be one of the
nation’s top ranked units in 2007. It’s fast and experienced,
and if Bower gets his way, about to become as physical as his
vintage teams of the late 1990s. The Eagles return nine
starters, including the entire front seven and five players that
earned all-Conference USA recognition in 2006. Good luck moving
the ball on this veteran group. If there’s a weak link on
defense it’s in the secondary, where two new starting corners
will be broken in. One way to help rookies Eddie Willingham and
Michael McGee will be to get more pressure on the quarterback
than last year, when USM was No. 81 in the country in sacks.
Tackles: Gerald McRath,
Robert Henderson, 4.5
Interceptions: Brandon Sumrall, 2
Star of the
Sophomore LB Gerald McRath
Player that has to step up and become a star:
Junior CB Eddie Willingham
Unsung star on the rise:
Sophomore DE Roshaad Byrd
Senior DT Martavius Prince
three all-star candidates:
1) McRath 2) Prince 3) S Brandon Sumrall
Strength of the defense:
The front seven, the safeties, run defense
Weakness of the defense: The cornerbacks, getting to the
Projected Starters: It has to be a little lonely
these days for Sean Merrill. The senior nose tackle is
the only member of the defensive line that didn’t receive some
all-Conference USA recognition at the end of last season. That
Merrill is the least heralded of the Southern Miss front wall is
a testament to just how dominant this group could be in 2007.
He’s a very physical 295-pound tackle with a nasty demeanor, but
has been slowed by injuries since arriving from junior college.
Although he broke his leg at the end of spring, Merrill will be
back by August looking for a strong finish to his USM career.
Lining up next to Merrill will be senior Martavius Prince,
a standout run-stuffer coming off a breakout campaign. In his
first year as a regular, he had 49 tackles, a team-high 15
tackles for loss and three sacks, laying the foundation for
what’ll be an even better final season.
When senior end Matthew Chatelain was granted a
sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA, it ensured that the
starting defensive line would return intact in 2007. A one-time
walk-on with a non-stop motor, he tied for the team lead with
4.5 sacks in 2006, but is even more valuable as a catalyst and
an emotional leader of the line.
At bandit will be senior Robert Henderson, a 6-3,
280-pound pass rusher that has the size and strength of a
tackle. He had a career year in 2006, posting 59 tackles, 12
tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Now Henderson needs to emerge
as a player that can track down the quarterback on a more
Projected Top Reserves: Developing depth this fall
is going to be important, especially since the Eagles will be
breaking in four new starters in 2008. Now that he’s trimmed
some fat and gotten in shape, redshirt freshman nose tackle
Anthony Gray can expect to be a part of the rotation this
fall. He’s a low leverage guy that boasts a bench press of 490
pounds, tops among Southern Miss players.
On the outside, the staff has high hopes for junior Eric
Phillips and sophomore Roshaad Byrd. At 6-7 and 291
pounds, Phillips is the biggest of the Eagle ends and a
potential force as a run defender, but has yet to parlay all of
that raw ability into results. One of the program’s higher
profile signings of 2005, Byrd is ready to begin contributing to
the defense. He’s added about 30 pounds since getting to
Hattiesburg, but hasn’t lost the burst that should make him a
valuable edge rusher.
Watch Out For… Boise State’s Ian Johnson to be the
only back to get 100 yards on the Southern Miss defense in
2007. With good size along the line and every starter from the
front seven back, there won’t be much running room for the
Eagles’ opponents this fall.
Strength: Experience. It’s one thing to have four
starters back, but it’s another thing entirely when those four
starters have ten letters between them and enough talent to vie
for all-league recognition.
Weakness: …For all the talent on the Eagle line,
it’d be nice if the unit could pick up a few more sacks this
year. The defense was 81st nationally at getting to
the quarterback in 2006, and didn’t have a single player with
more than five sacks.
Outlook: While you might be able to pass on
Southern Miss this year, forget about running the ball. The
front four is big and quick, and eager to show why it’s the best
defensive line outside of the major conferences.
Projected Starters: By the program’s standards,
last season was a bit of a rebuilding year at the position.
Now, with all three starters returning, Southern Miss will be
home to the nastiest collection of linebackers in Conference
USA. Sophomore Gerald McRath was a revelation in 2006,
returning from an injury suffered a year earlier, and then going
on to lead the team with 104 tackles. An instinctive defender,
he gets to the ball extremely quickly and rarely misses a
tackle. At 6-3 and 213 pounds, McRath is on the road to
becoming the next really big thing in a Golden Eagle
McRath’s wingmen will be junior Tokumbo Abanikanda at
weakside and senior James Denley at strongside.
Abanikanda had 59 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in
his debut as the starter, flashing excellent closing speed and
toughness in run defense. Built like a safety at 6-0 and 218
pounds, he’s especially dangerous coming off the blitz.
A veteran of 28 games and 23 starts, Denley is the senior member
of the unit and a solid, 238-pound run defender. In last year’s
second season as a full-timer, he finished third on the team
with 63 tackles, including nine behind the line.
Projected Top Reserves: Fully recovered from a
knee injury suffered in junior college, senior Jerome Lyons
proved to be a very valuable backup to McRath in 2006. In fact,
he started five games in the middle last season, finishing with
35 tackles. As reserves go, a player of Lyons’ caliber is a
luxury for the defense. After spending the entire 2006 season
on special teams, sophomore Brandon Davis will get
gradually phased into the defense as Abanikanda’s backup. He’s
just 6-1 and 208 pounds, but moves with the quickness of a
Watch Out For…: McRath to begin getting modest
national attention as one of the better young linebackers in
America. Unlike last season when he caught some people by
surprise, he begins 2007 as one of the higher-profile
linebackers in Conference USA.
Strength: Experience. With Lyons lurking on the
second team, Southern Miss has four quality linebackers that
started at least five games in last year’s nine-win season.
Weakness: Depth at outside linebacker. It’s
nit-picking, but the team’s backups behind Denley and Abanikanda
are very young and inexperienced beyond breaking wedges on punt
and kick coverages.
Outlook: McRath is the headliner of the unit, but
he won’t be working solo. Flanked by Abanikanda and Denley, the
Eagle linebackers are a diverse group that will fly to the ball
and make big plays the entire season.
Projected Starters: If offenses want to put a dent
into the Southern Miss defense in 2007, they might want to
attack a secondary that will be working with two new starting
cornerbacks. The Eagles were terrific against the pass last
year, but Jasper Faulk and Caleb Hendrix are gone, suddenly
making the defense vulnerable to the pass. Sophomore Michael
McGee and junior Eddie Willingham are likely to be on
the hot seat this season at field and boundary corner,
respectively. They’re a pair of undersized burners, but whether
they can keep a Jarett Dillard or Duke Calhoun from completely
taking over a game is the great unknown at this stage. While
neither saw much action outside of special teams, Willingham did
start a couple of games as a freshman in 2005, which should
somewhat flatten his learning curve.
The situation at safety couldn’t be more different, where
seniors Brandon Sumrall and LeVance Richmond will
be once again patrolling the secondary like wardens. Entering
his third season as the starting rover, Sumrall is an ideal
blend of smooth athleticism and big hits. For the second
consecutive season, he had at least 80 tackles in 2006, while
forcing a team-high three fumbles.
In his first season out of Pearl River (Miss.) Community
College, Richmond had 54 tackles and a program-best four picks
last year. He’s got the cover and athletic ability to support
the young corners, especially in the early stages of the
Projected Top Reserves: Junior Ivory Bradshaw
will be in the hunt for playing time at cornerback all season.
A converted receiver with good size, all he needs is more reps
to become a productive member of the secondary. Free safety
Eddie Hicks played in 14 games last year, starting twice, en
route to a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman team. He’s
big and fast, and ready to take over the position after Richmond
Watch Out For… JUCO safety Gene Anderson.
The intriguing thing about Anderson is that despite being 6-0
and 205 pounds, he has the hips of a corner, which is exactly
where he might used if McGee or Willingham implodes. Wherever
he winds up, he’s one of this year’s recruits that’s primed to
make an immediate impact.
Strength: The safeties. Not only will Sumrall and
Richmond administer pain, but they can also cover which is
especially important this season. Led by Hicks and either
Anderson or redshirt freshman Justin Wilson, the B team
is good enough to start for a few Conference USA defenses.
Weakness: The corners. Yes, McGee and Willingham
have upside and great jets, but let’s see how they hold up when
they’re the targets of opposing quarterbacks, week-in and
Outlook: Although the new cornerbacks will surely
get burnt from time to time, they’re so well insulated from the
surrounding talent, it’s not going to be the downfall of the
Projected Starters: Last season, Britt Barefoot
had to follow in the footsteps of All-American punter Lee
Johnson. Things don’t get any easier this season for the
junior, who’s hoping to pull double-duties by succeeding Darren
McCaleb, arguably the best kicker in school history. As the
Eagle punter in 2006, Barefoot was inconsistent, averaging just
38.6 yards and contributing to the Eagles’ No. 78 ranking in net
punting. While leg strength isn’t a major issue, he needs to
dramatically refine his mechanics in order to get better in
2007. Barefoot last kicked field goals in high school, and in
the spring showed many of the same traits here as he does when
he punts—big leg with lots of inconsistency.
After averaging a pedestrian 21 yards a kick return last year,
senior Brandon Sumrall will be stepping aside for
redshirt freshman Ralph Turner and junior Ed Morgan,
a couple of gnats that can lost behind the wedge. Jasper
Faulk’s graduation opens the door for senior Chris Johnson
and sophomore Michael McGee to field punts this fall.
Projected Top Reserves: Pushing Barefoot at kicker
and punter, respectively, will be redshirt freshman Kyle
Hopton and junior Brett Hicks. Hopton has been a
little more accurate than Barefoot, but beyond 40 yards, he’s
going to struggle to connect. A former junior college transfer,
Hicks did not get on the field for the Golden Eagles in 2006.
Watch Out For… Barefoot’s maturation in his second
season as a regular. He basically is the special teams this
year in Hattiesburg, so if he tanks, the unit is going to go
from very average to very scary in a hurry.
Strength: Barefoot on kickoffs. Particularly in a
year when kickoffs are being moved back five yards, Barefoot’s
leg strength will be a big asset. As the specialist last
season, almost 40% of his kicks went for touchbacks and just one
went out of bounds.
Weakness: Covering kicks. Southern Miss needs
work everywhere on special teams, but particularly on kick
coverage. The Eagles allowed more than 24 yards a kick return
last fall, ranking them among the nation’s worst in 2006.
Outlook: Losing Johnson and McCaleb over the last
two years is catching up with the Eagles, who no longer have any
special players on their special teams unit.