Let's face it, Southern Miss has fallen on hard times. After establishing itself as the mid-major with the bone-crunching defense under former head coach Jeff Bauer and former defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, the Golden Eagles have become a laughing stock, only breaking its 23 game losing streak at the end of last season against a haplessly inconsistent UAB team.
The defense that produced NFL defenders like Adalius Thomas and Michael Boley has fallen on hard times indeed. Gone is its swagger and its accompanying ability to cause headaches for elite offenses in Conference USA and beyond.
But there is hope. Yes, USM is now captained by offensive guru Todd Monken, but Dylan Bradley (#94) has been one of the bright spots on what is arguably the brightest spot of them all for the Golden Eagle team, namely the defensive line.
Who in the heck is Dylan Bradley?
Bradley, a true sophomore out of Noxubee County High School in Macon, MS, only has one season under his belt, but he's already letting his presence be felt in 2014. Bradley started in the final game of the season last year against UAB, and played in 11 games overall for the Golden Eagles in 2013. His numbers were strong for a freshman starting on one of the nation's most inept teams, as the 6'1", 265 pound defensive end finished the season with 52 total tackles (24 solo tackles), 4.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
In the Golden Eagles' season opener against Mississippi State, Bradley drew the eye of the Bulldog coaching squad with an impressive performance. After an off-season position change that saw Bradley transition from a smallish defensive tackle to a large defensive end, the defender put in work against what is believed to be one of the SEC's most veteran lines, amassing four tackles and a sack (that sack coming against the vaunted Dak Prescott) in the game.
USM defensive coordinator David Duggan had this to say about Bradley following the game against Mississippi State:
"He (Mississippi State offensive line coach John Hevesy) commented about Dylan after the game. Thought he was a heck of a player, and he is. He's involved in a lot of plays and that's what he does. He's strong, he's powerful, has a really good knack for the game. He's got a very bright future here."
Bradley was a three-star recruit coming out of high school, and was ranked the #11 recruit in the state of Mississippi in 2012 by 24/7 Sports. He was the defensive leader of a 16-0 Noxubee County High School team that won the 4A Mississippi State Championship, and following that campaign, Bradley was named the Mississippi High School Athletic Association 4A Defensive Player of the Year. As a senior, he recorded four sacks in two separate games.
What we can expect from Dylan Bradley vs. Alabama
Truthfully, anyone who expects this particular Southern Miss team to have much success against a power like Alabama is delusional. Sure, Southern Miss has caught Bama napping from time to time over the years, and the Golden Eagles even upset Coach Bear Bryant near the end of his career.
But that's not to say that a player like Bradley couldn't have a fantastic game against the Tide. He is a large man for the position at 265 pounds, but he is also extremely quick and has great balance. In the last year, the Tide has seemingly struggled against lighter, faster pass rushers, and Bradley fits that mold (plus a few extra pounds). He is not just fast, however, as he shoved the MSU linemen around a good bit in the opener and demonstrated his strength and athleticism. After all, Bradley returned two kicks (yes, returned two kicks) for the Golden Eagles last year, so he brings a rare blend of size and quickness into the equation for the USM defense.
Bradley will primarily line up over freshman LT Cam Robinson or veteran right tackle Austin Shepard, and while those match-ups would seem to favor the bigger men in both cases, expect Bradley to use his athleticism to occasionally harass Bama's quarterback and force the run inside. Bradley and his fellow defensive linemen gave the Bulldogs fits in their opener, and the Bulldogs boast a gigantic line (even by SEC standards) that has plenty of experience. If Bradley and company can slip Bama's big boys from time to time while stuffing the run, it could be enough to disrupt a Bama offense that is still searching for its cadence.
The most likely outcome is that we will hear Bradley's name called numerous times, as he's an active player who always seems to have his nose near the ball. He'll make his tackles and get the occasional pressure, but his supporting cast is not strong enough to give the Golden Eagles much of a chance of containing Bama's playmakers.