football Edit

Competition breeding optimism for Southern Miss

With spring practices finally all wrapping up around the country, HuskerOnline.com continues our look at where each of Nebraska's 12 opponents in 2015 currently stand coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer. Today, we check in on the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, who come to Lincoln on Sept. 26 for NU's final non-conference game.
To get a feel for where the Golden Eagles stand heading into their third season under head coach Todd Monken, we spoke with Lanny Mixon of BigGoldNation.com to get his thoughts and perspective on the team and what to expect once the season gets underway in a few months.
Spring overview
Having managed just four wins over the first two seasons since Monken took over in 2013, Southern Miss's program was desperately searching for reasons for optimism going into the spring of Year Three. While there are still plenty of questions surrounding the Golden Eagles, they can at least feel better about their chances of taking the next step this season.
First and foremost, USM appears to have two viable options at quarterback in incumbent starter Nick Mullens and TCU transfer Tyler Matthews, who Mixon said were essentially neck and neck coming out of spring ball. The Golden Eagles also added eight junior college transfers who enrolled in the spring, including at least four potential starters on the offensive line and two at linebacker.
The defense as a whole remains the biggest question heading into fall camp, but with a team that Monken said features the most depth he's had yet entering his third season in Hattiesburg, there looks to be plenty of potential for Southern Miss to legitimately compete in Conference-USA.
Returning starters
Southern Miss feels good about its quarterback position regardless of whether Mullens or Matthews wins the job, especially considering the winner will have arguably one of the top receiving corps in C-USA at his disposal with the return of seniors Casey Martin and Mike Thomas, who combined for 96 catches for 1,123 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
The Golden Eagles also return their top three leading rushers from 2014, but injuries to sophomore Ito Smith and junior George Payne as well as senior Jalen Richard sitting out the spring due to academic issues left the backfield very thin this spring.
The offensive line is still a work in progress, but the addition of four juco transfers - including tackles Drew Peterson and Tyler Stutzman - should provide more depth. Only four starters return on defense, which is why that side of the ball was and will continue to be the biggest area of concern for USM.
Offensive star: WR Michael Thomas
Because so much is unsettled at quarterback and running back, probably the most sound position on the Southern Miss offense right now is wide receiver. In particular, Thomas returns after leading the team in both receiving yards (592) and receiving touchdowns (five) on 41 catches, which ranked second only to Martin's 55.
After averaging a team-best 49.3 receiving yards per game last season, Thomas will be one of the Golden Eagles' top offensive threats once again in 2015 and will be a big asset to whichever quarterback is throwing to him. On top of that, he also gives USM a playmaker in the return game, as he averaged 24.0 yards on 26 kickoff returns and took one 100 yards to the house last season.
Defensive star: DE Dylan Bradley
The success of Southern Miss's defense this season is going to rely heavily on the play of its front seven, particularly how well the defensive line can hold up. Leading the way for USM's front four is junior defensive end Dylan Bradley, who is going to be counted on as one of the primary pass rushers off the edge.
Bradley had a solid sophomore campaign in 2014, finishing with 24 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble despite playing in only eight games with just four starts. Bradley needs to set the tone for Southern Miss up front if the defense is going to hold up its end of the bargain.
Spring surprise: DE Xavier Thigpen
Considering Southern Miss's lack of proven depth on the defensive side of the ball, it's no shock that the Golden Eagles are turning to a cast of new faces to step into the starting lineup and produce in 2015. One of those players who has taken full advantage of that opportunity is redshirt sophomore defensive end Xavier Thigpen.
After adding 22 pounds of muscle since last season to bulk up to 6-5, 237, Thigpen is now more than capable physically of holding his own as a starter on the front four. Not only that, he was one of the stars of USM's spring game, racking up two sacks to help put him in the driver's seat for a starting job entering fall camp.
Best spring position battle: Quarterback
There's no question that quarterback was the most talked about and analyzed position battles of all for Southern Miss this spring, and that will continue to be the case not only on into the fall camp, but potentially on through the rest of the season. Mullens started 10 games last year and threw for 2,470 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions, but he has had to earn his starting role back all over again since Matthews officially joined the mix this spring.
Unlike Mullens, Matthews provides more mobility in the pocket, has a stronger arm and can throw better while on the run, attributes that USM hasn't had at quarterback since 2011 when Austin Davis, now with the St. Louis Rams, was under center.
Biggest question: Will the running game hold up?
The funny part about Southern Miss's running back situation is that coming into spring practice it was regarded by many as one of the over strengths of the team. But because of injuries and academic issues, the Golden Eagles were left with two sophomores - Tez Parks and Daythan Davis - as the only healthy active backs on the roster for much of the spring.
Smith, who led USM with 536 rushing yards in 2014, was injured towards the end of spring ball and played sparingly in the spring game. Payne, who had a team-high six rushing touchdowns last season, is coming off a knee injury and missed time with an injured shoulder early last year as well. Then Richard, who rushed for 236 yards, was held out of spring practice for academics.
The Golden Eagles only signed one running back in its 2015 class in two-star Patrick Brooks, leaving a position that was supposed to be a strong point on the offense relatively thin going into fall camp.
Early outlook on Southern Miss vs. Nebraska
Mixon: "One of the things that I think both Nebraska and Mississippi State are going to see from Southern Miss is that Southern Miss, moving forward, is going to be a team that is going to be able to compete on a down-to-down basis physically with just about anybody they play. Now the scoreboard, who knows what happens on the scoreboard. But the ability to compete on a down-to-down basis, I think Southern Miss is back to where they can compete with good teams."
Overall 2015 win-loss expectations
Mixon: "I think the expectations are pretty high from the coaching staff to the players to the fans. After the Ellis Johnson debacle and a couple years of recovery now, I think everybody is wanting to see Southern Miss back in contention for the division and Conference-USA and getting back to a bowl game and getting the ship right. They were so close, probably a quarterback injury away from being in a bowl game a year ago. With two healthy, quality quarterbacks now, and a lot more experience and and lot more depth on the offensive line, I think the expectations in Hattiesburg are anything less than getting back to a bowl game would be pretty disappointing."
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