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2008 Southern Miss Preview - Defense
Southern Miss LB Gerald McRath
Southern Miss LB Gerald McRath
Posted May 20, 2008 2008 Preview - Southern Miss Golden Eagle Defense

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Southern Miss Preview | 2008 USM Offense
- 2008 USM Defense
| 2008 USM Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Southern Miss Preview
| 2006 CFN Southern Miss Preview 

What you need to know: The Southern Miss offense isn’t the only unit that’ll be undergoing some renovations this fall.  The Eagle defense must replace seven starters from a group that had a few too many lapses a year ago.  The weakest link of the crew figures to be the defensive line, which loses all four starters, two of which were members of the All-Conference USA First Team.  The pressure rests squarely on inexperienced underclassmen, such as ends Roshaad Byrd and David Boyce, and tackle Anthony Gray, to soar past expectations and create a push up front.  The lone star on the Eagle D is LB Gerald McRath, a tackling machine and the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year.         

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Gerald McRath, 139
Sacks: Gerald McRath, 4.5
Interceptions: Eddie Hicks, 3

Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Gerald McRath
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Roshaad Byrd
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB C.J. Bailey
Best pro prospect: McRath
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McRath 2) Junior FS Eddie Hicks 3) Senior LB Tokumbo Abanikanda
Strength of the defense: The linebackers
Weakness of the defense: The defensive line

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: After losing four starters and a pair of First Team All-Conference USA performers, Southern Miss is facing a reclamation project along the defensive line.  The most battle-tested of the linemen is DE Roshaad Byrd, and he’s only a sophomore with ten games of experience.  An explosive player at 6-3 and 258 pounds, he’s expected to be the catalyst for the pass rush from the outside.

Joining Byrd at defensive end will be sophomore David Boyce, a rangy 6-6 and 243-pound athlete who made a couple of brief cameos as a freshman.  Very quick around the edge and much stronger than when he arrived on campus, he possesses the raw ingredients to become a fixture on this defense for the next three years.

At the nose, senior Eric Phillips has his best opportunity to crack the starting lineup after being a non-factor for three consecutive years.  At 6-7 and 280 pounds, he’ll obstruct the quarterback’s line of sight, but is going to have leverage issues when matched up with squat, powerful opposing linemen.

Although sophomore Anthony Gray missed more than half of last year with a foot injury, he impressed the coaching staff when he returned in October and November, picking up seven tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack.  A stocky 6-0, 311-pounder, he plays with great pad level and is one of the strongest members of the team.        

Projected Top Reserves: With three redshirt freshmen expected to play extensive minutes as reserves, depth is an issue that’ll linger throughout the 2008 season.  The most experienced of the backups is junior DT Rolando Barragan, a 6-3, 295-pound product of El Camino (Calif.) Community College.  Signed for his quickness and ability to stuff the run, he wasn’t far behind Gray when spring concluded.

On the outside, Codarro Law and Andrew Burns are a couple of unheralded redshirt freshmen with an opportunity to earn a letter.  While the 6-2, 230-pound Law is more of a speed rusher in the body of an outside linebacker, Burns goes 6-4 and 245 pounds and is better equipped to help out on run defense.  

Watch Out For… the Eagles to struggle at stopping the run.  Last year’s squad had lapses against better running teams when Martavius Prince and Sean Merrill were clogging lanes.  Without their veteran presence, Southern Miss is going to get moved off the ball by the likes of Auburn and Boise State.                                     
Strength: Athleticism off the edge.  While still very raw, Byrd and Boyce harbor the size and the speed at defensive end to eventually develop into a nasty combination for Conference USA quarterbacks.  If they can navigate the learning curve quick enough, everyone behind them is going to benefit.        
Weakness: … Proven talent.  From top to bottom, the Eagles don’t have a single defensive lineman with a start on his résumé, which will be new coordinator Todd Bradford’s biggest concern throughout the offseason.           
Outlook: The drop-off from last season is inevitable and likely precipitous. If Southern Miss loses too many battles at the point of attack, it’s going to be felt by the run defense and the pass defense. While Gray has the potential to be disruptive inside, a rotation of three or four ends will be used in order to keep everyone fresh.             
Rating: 5.5


Projected Starters: Junior Gerald McRath is the next in a long line of Southern Miss linebacking assassins.  The reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, he had a team-high 139 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.  At 6-3 and 220 pounds, McRath has the quickness and instincts from the inside of a high draft choice whenever he’s ready to come out.

Back for a third year as the starter at weakside is senior Tokumbo Abanikanda, an undersized defender who relies on his speed and experience to make plays. The 6-0, 217-pound veteran had 58 tackles and eight tackles behind the line a year ago and was also strong in pass coverage.

The lone newcomer to the starting lineup is junior Brandon Davis, who replaces James Denley at strongside.  Used mostly on special teams the last two seasons, he had 13 tackles as a backup, gradually preparing for this moment.  Yet another smallish Eagle linebacker, the 6-1, 205-pound Davis moves well sideline-to-sideline  

Projected Top Reserves: On an otherwise youthful second team, Southern Miss is thrilled that 6-1, 224-pound senior Jerome Lyons was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA.  The backup to McRath in the middle, he’s started games in each of the last two seasons, making 26 tackles last year.  Finally past his injury problems, Lyons is an underrated insurance policy for the Eagle D. 

On the outside, redshirt freshmen Korey Williams and Tim Green have worked their way into the two-deep on the outside.  At 6-2 and 220 pounds, Williams is one of the team’s bigger linebackers, and was moved from middle linebacker to take advantage of his closing speed in the new attacking defense.

Green is a rangy 6-3 and 190 pounds and needs to add weight, but has the range and explosion that fit what new coordinator Todd Bradford is trying to do on defense.  He’s the type of athlete that the staff can unleash on the blitz or drop back into coverage.

Watch Out For… more blitzing.  Bradford envisions an up-tempo defense that can create chaos and turnovers when the athletic linebackers are allowed to fly all over the field.                         
Strength: Range. No group of linebackers in Conference USA gets from Point A to Point B faster than the one in Hattiesburg. Led by McRath, the Golden Eagles are a bunch of predators that’ll make a ton of plays for negative yards.                
Weakness: Size. All of that speed and quickness comes at a price. The Eagle linebackers aren’t very big, averaging just 6-1 and 215 pounds on the first two units. While it won’t cause a problem against most opponents, big and physical offenses are liable to control a Southern Miss front seven that lacks mass.     
Outlook: This could be McRath’s final season as an amateur, so Golden Eagle fans might want to savor all of his games in black and gold. He’s a beast who makes everyone around him more effective.                        
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: Southern Miss will be building its defensive backfield around a pair of returning starters with All-Conference USA potential. Sophomore CB C.J. Bailey sat out the spring recovering from shoulder surgery, but is expected to be back in time for the opening of summer camp. One of last year’s breakthrough players, he started 10 games, turning 40 tackles, two picks, and 10 passes defended into Freshman All-American recognition. A speedy 5-10, 182-pounder, he plays more physical than his size might indicate.

Over at boundary corner will be senior Eddie Willingham, a spot starter throughout his career who’s being asked to increase his role. Like Bailey, he lacks ideal size at 5-10 and 179 pounds, and needs to prove right away that he can’t prevent the big play over the top. He had 11 tackles as a junior, 10 below his career high in 2005.

The anchor at free safety is junior Eddie Hicks, who erupted for 84 tackles, three interceptions, and five passes defended in his first season as a full-timer. Both big and fast at 6-2 and 185 pounds, he’s going to attract the attention of NFL scouts as soon as he tightens up his technique in pass coverage. On his way to becoming a complete safety, the program will ask Hicks to be more of a vocal leader.  

Sophomore Chico Hunter has used a strong spring performance to elevate to the top of the depth chart at strong safety. Pressed into action as a true freshman, the 6-0, 190-pounder responded with 19 tackles, while flashing impressive speed and a willingness to come up and pack a punch. He has a bright future that’ll begin crystallizing this fall.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Michael McGee handled the starting spot at field corner while Bailey was recuperating in the spring.  A two-time letterwinner with good jets, he made 22 tackles and three tackles for loss, showing sure tackling skills in the open field.  At 5-10 and 181 pounds, McGee’s biggest concern will be getting bullied by some of the league’s more physical receivers.

The heir apparent to Hicks at free safety is 5-11, 185-pound sophomore Justin Wilson.  A three-game starter a year ago and integral cog in the nickel defense, he contributed 43 tackles, two interceptions, and a half-dozen pass breakups. Even as a reserve, he’ll see the field plenty once again this season.

Watch Out For… Bailey. Provided the repaired shoulder doesn’t make him a little gun-shy, he’s ready for take-off after scratching the surface of his potential as a freshman.  He’s poised to become the lockdown corner that the Golden Eagles are desperately seeking.                           
Strength: Run defense. While not the biggest secondary around, the Golden Eagles aren’t shy about pressing up and whacking opposing backs. All of the defensive backs tackle fundamentally well, a big assist to the rebuilt defensive line.           
Weakness: A reliable complement to Bailey.  If Bailey develops as expected, opposing quarterbacks will quickly learn to avoid his side of the field.  Unfortunately for the defense, Willingham is vulnerable in pass defense and subject to being picked on weekly.         
Outlook: Although Hicks and Bailey are nice starting points, Southern Miss needs more help if it’s going to improve on last year’s mediocre results, including allowing 24 touchdown passes.  The secondary may not get much help from the pass rush, so it better be prepared to blanket receivers for more than a few seconds.    
Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: After improving in almost every area as the team’s punter, senior Britt Barefoot is eying the kicking job as well.  Sophomore Justin Estes handled the duties a year ago, but left the door open by showing limited range and making just 10-of-17 field goal attempts outside 30 yards. Barefoot has the much stronger leg, making his lone try from 51 yards, and was atop the depth chart coming out of spring.  As the punter, he lifted his average almost four yards to 42.5 yards, which was good enough for Second Team All-Conference USA honors. 
A pair of newcomers from the junior college ranks, Freddie Parham and Bubba Kirksey are going to share kick returns.  Senior Ed Morgan, who’s capable of getting lost in the crowd, will be replacing Brandon Sumrall as the Eagles primary punt returner.     

Watch Out For… Barefoot’s progress as the kicker.  Leg strength has never been an issue with the 6-0, 181-pounder, but he needs to refine his mechanics and prove he can consistently nail a 35-yarder when drives stall.            
Strength: Distance. Barefoot has the big, powerful leg needed to boom punts, reach from 50 yards on field goals, and pin opposing kick returners deep in their own territory. He averaged more than 64 yards on kickoffs, a key reason why Southern Miss was No. 4 in the league in covering kicks.             
Weakness: Kicking. Now that Estes has proven to be unpredictable beyond chip shots, what will the Eagles get from Barefoot? He can kick it a mile, but there’s a reason why he failed to win this job last fall and was only called on for one field goal.      
Outlook: Barefoot is a weapon that could evolve into one of the league’s premier special teams players if his kicking narrows the gap on his punting.  The Eagles could use a few more big plays in the return game after fizzling last year.            
Rating: 6