After winning the Conference-USA title in 2011 then-head coach Larry Fedora departed Southern Miss to take the helm at North Carolina. Since then, the Golden Eagles are on their second coach, having amassed a record of 2-24 in the team's last 26 games. After getting rolled by Mississippi State in the opener, the Eagles rebounded with a 26-20 win over Alcorn State last week, although the game was a good deal closer than it should have been.
Injuries can have a devastating effect on even a great team, and Southern Miss last year was anything but great. At least three current starters on the Eagles' defense suffered early injuries in 2013 that sidelined them for the rest of the season. What that means is that USM's 2014 defense has depth. Unfortunately, the team's performance in its first two outings shows that the Eagles have a long way to go talent-wise on both sides of the ball before they are ready to compete at an elite level.
Again, I won't pretend that the Eagles' defense should give Alabama much trouble on Saturday, but we will look at some of their defensive standouts in case you want to know who T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will be running past this weekend.
The first thing you notice about the Southern Miss defensive line is experience. All four starters are upperclassmen, and they all have a redshirt year in the program. Unfortunately, it didn't help much against Alcorn State last week. The Braves rushed for nearly 300 yards against the more-talented Golden Eagles, led by their dual-threat quarterback John Gibbs.
The anchor of Southern Miss's defensive line is redshirt senior Adam Williams at defensive tackle. Williams played in every game last season and started the last six. The 6'2", 296-lb lineman made 40 tackles in 2013, and notched three against Mississippi State.
At the other tackle spot, Rakeem Nunez-Roches received a medical redshirt in 2013 after appearing in only two games. The 6'2", 305-lb redshirt junior earned all-conference recognition in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Redshirt senior Dasman McCullum played in every game last year, notching a team-high 10.5 tackles for loss. At 242 lbs, he's a bit undersized for a defensive end. Michael Smith, a redshirt junior starting at the other end position, is the only player on the entire Southern Miss team to play and start in all 12 games last season. A product of Wenonah High School in Birmingham, Smith also starred in basketball and track before his college days. I am struggling to imagine a 277-lb lineman running 4x100 relay, but he participated in the state championships, so rest assured that he's pretty fast.
Southern Miss coach Todd Monken modified the Eagles' defensive scheme in the offseason. -- via imgick.gulflive.com
Depth at linebacker played a role in head coach Todd Monken's decision to make a schematic change in the spring from the 4-2-5 defense USM has run for the last three years back to a 4-3. Redshirt senior Alan Howze is arguably the most experienced player on the defense, having started 16 consecutive games at middle linebacker before a turf toe sidelined him for the final eight games of 2013. Howze was the team's second-leading tackler in 2012, and he had 16 stops against Arkansas last season.
Brian Anderson and Justin Penn join Howze at the outside linebacker positions. A transfer from Butte College, Anderson was a first team All-American and national champion for the Road Runners last year. Although he's short for a linebacker (only 5'10"), he is a talented player. Penn, a redshirt senior, is a former special teams standout for the Golden Eagles who earned a starting job in the spring.
Adding their experience to the linebacking corps are sophomore C.J. Perry and redshirt junior Terrick Wright, both of whom were starters last season.
With two interceptions already in the first two games of the season, junior cornerback Kalan Reed is making a name for himself in the USM secondary. A graduate of Briarwood Christian, Reed is an standout in the classroom as well, earning all-conference academic honors in 2013.
At the other corner, talented freshman Picasso Nelson Jr. earned a starting job in fall camp. A local standout from Hattiesburg's Oak Grove High School, Nelson had five tackles each in the games against Mississippi State and Alcorn State.
At free safety, senior Emmanuel Johnson is a three-year starter. The 5'11", 187-lb Johnson was the team's fourth-leading tackler in 2013 and also returns kickoffs for the Eagles. Jacorius Cotton missed all of last year due to academic ineligibility, but the redshirt senior returns as strong safety. Cotten started in each of his previous three seasons. He currently leads the team in tackles with 15 and has two pass break ups.
Other players who will see significant action Saturday in the secondary include freshmen cornerbacks Jomez Applewhite and Cornell Armstrong.
While the Southern Miss defense is experienced, they are far from SEC-level talent. Keep in mind that Florida Atlantic, the Crimson Tide's last sacrificial victim, hammered USM 41-7 back in November. Look for a near repeat of last week's performance from Alabama, as the Tide looks to fine-tune things for next week's showdown with the Florida Gators. As for the Eagles, the road gets much easier from here on out. If they can stay healthy, I expect that they will improve on last year's record, but not enough to make it to a bowl game.