2009 Southern Miss Preview - Defense
Southern Miss LB Martez Smith
CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Southern Miss Golden Eagle Defense
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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.
Chico Hunter, 68
Anthony Gray, 6
Interceptions: Eddie Hicks, Justin Woods, 4
the defense: Junior DT Anthony Gray
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.
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
of the defense: Pass rush, linebacker
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
The graduation of Britt Barefoot has Southern Miss in the market
for a new punter. A couple of unlikely competitors—quarterbacks
Austin Davis and
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
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.
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.