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2009 Southern Miss Preview - Defense
Southern Miss LB Martez Smith
Southern Miss LB Martez Smith
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 22, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Southern Miss Golden Eagle Defense

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Southern Miss Preview | 2009 USM Offense
- 2009 USM Defense
| 2009 USM Depth Chart
- 2008 USM Preview | 2007 USM Preview
| 2006 USM Preview 

What you need to know: It was a tale of two seasons for the Southern Miss D in 2008, getting shredded in September and October before stiffening down the stretch. Which Eagle unit shows up this fall? Coordinator Todd Bradford has the parts to keep rolling, but will have to do so without linebacker extraordinaire Gerald McRath, who chose to leave early for the NFL draft. Filling his spot in the middle will be sophomore Korey Williams, who has considerable upside and an opportunity to make a ton of plays. The defensive line, the Achilles’ heel a year ago, has matured considerably, and is positioned to stand its ground a little better this time around. If the front four can mount some kind of a pass rush, few teams will throw on a secondary that found its groove last November, and will keep getting better in 2009.     

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Chico Hunter, 68
Sacks: Anthony Gray, 6
Interceptions: Eddie Hicks, Justin Woods, 4

Star of the defense: Junior DT Anthony Gray
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Roshaad Byrd
Unsung star on the rise
: Sophomore LB Korey Williams
Best pro prospect
: Senior FS Eddie Hicks
Top three all-star candidates
: 1) Gray 2) Hicks 3) Williams
Strength of the defense: Pass defense, preventing big plays, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, linebacker

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: After spending much of last season trying to rebuild this unit, Southern Miss feels it’s ready to makes strides up front in 2009. Leading the way for a more veteran group is 6-0, 301-pound junior Anthony Gray, a ferocious penetrator and one of the strongest members of the team. While undersized at the nose, he uses his frame to his advantage, getting leverage on blockers and beating them into the backfield. As a sophomore he broke out with 29 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks en route to a spot on the All-Conference USA second team.

Legal issues aside, Gray’s partner on the inside will be 6-3, 295-pound senior Rolando Barragan. In his first season out of El Camino (Calif.) Community College, he contributed as a reserve, making 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. Whether there’ll be a second season depends on how the school reacts to his arrest in May on three charges of possessing an open container in a moving vehicle, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.

The most experienced end is 6-3, 247-pound junior Roshaad Byrd, who has made 23 appearances as a starter and a reserve throughout his career.  While a good athlete, with explosive tendencies, he’s had trouble finishing his rush, making 29 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss a year ago, yet failing to register a sack.

Forming a bookend with Byrd will be 6-3, 242-pound sophomore Deddrick Jones, a first-time letterwinner in 2008. Not unlike his teammate, he’s a gifted athlete, who moves with the quickness and range of a linebacker. However, he, too, couldn’t get to the quarterback, making 20 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and not a single sack.

Projected Top Reserves: With the inability of Byrd and Jones to ignite the pass rush, how much longer can 6-2, 243-pound sophomore Cordarro Law be kept on the bench? A bolt of lightning off the edge, he debuted impressively with 21 tackles, six tackles for loss, and five sacks. If he can add more muscle and become less of a liability in run defense, his reps are sure to increase.

After looking a little out of place at end in 2008, 6-3, 275-pound sophomore Terrance Pope is moving inside, where he’ll back up Gray. He had 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2008, lacking the burst needed to collapse the pocket. Once he gets in better shape and adds some girth, he’ll be better suited to occupy blockers and create congestion in run defense.

Watch Out For… a positive trend. It took more than half a season before the defensive line finally started to gel in 2008. After getting gutted in run defense for two months, the Eagles held their last five opponents to just 60 yards a game on the ground. With so many familiar faces back, look for that momentum to continue in September.
Strength: Inside penetration. It all starts with Gray, who is so quick and so determined that he requires more than one blocker to keep him from blowing plays up. With the attention he receives, Barragan, provided he’s available, will find a clearer path to the backfield.
Weakness: Outside pressure. The Golden Eagles were an uncharacteristic 93rd nationally in sacks, largely due to the feeble rush provided by the defensive ends. With the exception of Law, who stood out, Southern Miss got one measly sack from the outside rushers.
Outlook: The defensive line will be better than a year ago, but by how much? It’s a key question for a defense that wasn’t its old nasty self in 2008. Now that the run D appears to be more stable, the main objective will be to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Rating: 5.5

Linebackers

Projected Starters: No unit on this team has more ground to make up than linebacker, which lost current Tennessee Titan Gerald McRath and three-year starter Tokumbo Abanikanda. There’s hope that 6-2, 228-pound sophomore Korey Williams is poised to become the next in a long line of dominant Eagles at the position. He was clearly headed in that direction as a rookie, making 21 tackles, four tackles for loss, and forcing three fumbles in the first four games before suffering a broken jaw. As the new man in the middle, he has the speed and range to have a statement season at Southern Miss.

If Williams is the budding star of the linebackers, 6-0, 211-pound junior Martez Smith is the steady veteran of the unit. A letterman in each of the last two seasons, he played strongside, finishing fifth on the team with 59 tackles and six tackles for loss. While the size of a safety, he’ll lay the wood and has the quickness to cover a lot of ground.

Rounding out the starting unit will be sophomore Ronnie Thornton, who has risen up the depth chart after mostly playing special teams. The somewhat forgotten member of the regulars, he has the quickness and 6-3, 230-pound frame to be a playmaker, especially on running downs. From a physical standpoint, he’s ready to contribute right away.

Projected Top Reserves: Realizing the importance of bolstering middle linebacker after McRath bolted, the Eagles signed 5-10, 221-pound junior Hendrick Leverette out of Pearl River (Miss.) Community College. A tackling machine in junior college, he’ll cover plenty of ground in a short period of time. At such a young group, his veteran presence couldn’t come at a better time.

Behind Smith at strongside is 6-1, 200-pound senior Brandon Davis, a career special teamer, who brings previous experience to the second unit. While no threat to the starting spot, he’s a steady performer and a quality all-around athlete.

Providing insurance to Thornton at weakside will be 6-3, 200-pound sophomore Tim Green, who has the speed and range to eventually be a nice fit in a defense that wants to attack. Used mostly on special teams a year ago, he’s the type of athlete that the staff can unleash on the blitz or drop back into coverage.

Watch Out For… Williams to arrive. This is one of those instances, when opportunity meets talent, resulting in huge results. Williams was excelling as the rookie in a veteran-laden group last September. Now that he’s the torch-bearer, write him down for 100 tackles and all-league recognition.

Strength: Range. Few sets of linebackers in Conference USA are going to get from Point A to Point B faster than the one at Southern Miss.  Led by Williams and Smith, the Eagles are a bunch of predators who’ll make a ton of plays from sideline to sideline.                
Weakness: Proven players. No doubt Williams is on the right career trajectory, but what does it say about a unit when its best player has just five career games of experience? With no proven stars left at linebacker, everyone will have to elevate their play this season. 
Outlook: McRath was special; replacing his 100 tackles and countless big plays will take more than one player. While Williams is headed for a huge sophomore season, so it’s incumbent upon Smith, Thornton, and the backups to rise up and create havoc this fall.
Rating: 5.5

Secondary

Projected Starters: With every relevant of the two-deep returning, the secondary feels it can build on the momentum it built toward the end of last season. One of the pleasant surprises of the group was 5-10, 180-pound senior Andre Watson, who received some all-conference recognition in his first year out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He came off the bench midway through the season, finishing with 32 tackles, three interceptions, and a pair of fumble recoveries. Expect more from No. 12 now that he has his first spring behind him.

While Watson mans boundary corner, field corner belongs to 5-10, 189-pound junior C.J. Bailey, a third-year starter and former Freshman All-American. After a slow start recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, he picked it up and had 36 tackles, three pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. He has good feet and hips, and isn’t bashful about stepping and lowering his shoulder in run defense.

The most decorated of the defensive backs is 6-2, 183-pound senior FS Eddie Hicks, a third-year starter and reigning member of the All-Conference USA second team. Well on his way to becoming a complete safety, he’s one of the team’s best open field tacklers and an improving pass defender. He was productive for the second straight year, making 64 stops, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a team-high four picks.

Junior Chico Hunter was enjoying a breakthrough season when it was ended prematurely by a knee injury in early November. At the time, he was second on the team with 68 tackles and had an Eagle-best six pass breakups. The 6-0, 195-pounder missed the spring, but should be back in the summer, looking to maintain his grip on the other safety job.

Projected Top Reserves: Battling Hunter at safety will be 5-11, 187-pound junior Justin Wilson, who played very well when pressed into the lineup in the latter stages of the season. It was the second straight year that he received significant reps, ending up with 19 tackles, a team-high four interceptions, and five passes defended. He’s proven to have terrific ball skills, and is essentially like having another starter in the defensive backfield.

The veteran of the cornerbacks is 5-10, 181-pound senior Michael McGee, a three-time letterwinner and regular playmaker on special teams. He’s now played in 34 games throughout his career, making a career-high 28 tackles and four breakups in 2008. He’s trying to fend off the competition being provided by some of the younger Eagles, such as redshirt freshman Marcal Robinson.  

Watch Out For… the competition to bring out the best in everyone. The Golden Eagles are deep everywhere, which will force even the seasoned vets, like Hicks and Hunter, to remain sharp. If injury strikes again this fall, the drop-off to the second teamers won’t be so steep.
Strength: Keeping the ball in front of them. Unlike most Conference USA secondaries, Southern Miss does a nice job of keeping the play in front of it. Just about the entire group that yielded only 6.5 yards per attempt in 2008 is back in Hattiesburg again in 2009.
Weakness: Consistency. Is Southern Miss ready to pick up where it left off last December? Or are the Eagles still susceptible to rough stretches, like the five games in the middle of 2008, when they allowed 17 touchdowns passes and picked off just three? In this league, they’ve got to be air-tight from wire-to-wire.
Outlook: East Carolina may have the league’s best pass defense, but Southern Miss is ready to challenge for the top spot. The Eagles have the talent, depth, and head of steam to be really feisty throughout the season. If they can get more support from the pass rush, which was AWOL a year ago, few opponents will move the ball through the air on this group.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The graduation of Britt Barefoot has Southern Miss in the market for a new punter. A couple of unlikely competitors—quarterbacks Austin Davis and Bret Jefcoat—are vying to fill the opening. Both are quality athletes, and Davis actually punted four times out of the shotgun formation for an average of 36 yards.

Barefoot also handled kickoffs and the majority of field goals, so a new placekicker must be found as well. The staff might be putting its faith in sophomore Daniel Hrapmann, a transfer from Southeastern Louisiana. He did enough to carry an edge coming out of spring, but will still have to out duel junior Justin Estes, the lone kicker with experience at this level. He hit just 4-of-7 field goal attempts, and hasn’t shown enough consistency to leverage his seniority.

No one stood out in the return game in 2008, forcing the staff to open auditions in an effort to find a spark. In all likelihood, some combination of juniors Freddie Parham and Andre Watson will handle punts and kickoffs.

Watch Out For… Davis as the punter. He throws. He runs. He punts? Why not? As effective as he was on the first three downs as the starting quarterback, why not give him a shot on fourth down as well? Think about the threat he’d pose to pull a fake and pick up the first down.
Strength: Kickoff return coverage. You need an experienced search party to find the positives on this unit. To their credit, the Golden Eagles yielded less than 20 yards a kickoff last year, which ranked 34th nationally and No. 4 in Conference USA.
Weakness: Kicking. You name it—punting, placekicking, kickoffs. Southern Miss has glaring question marks everywhere. Barefoot was hardly a sure-thing in anything but kickoffs, but Eagle fans might grow to miss him in 2009.
Outlook: In a word, brutal. You’d be hard-pressed to find a flimsier special teams unit than the one in Hattiesburg. The punter is a quarterback. The placekicker is an FCS transfer. The return was second-rate. And only one team in the country was worse last year in punt coverage. Good luck with all that.
Rating: 3.5