Former Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken directed one of the most prolific offenses in college football a year ago. His team lit up Conference USA and Power 5 opponents during his tenure in Hattiesburg. Monken has since moved on and is now the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Enter Jay Hopson. Hopson was a long time defensive coordinator prior to taking the head coaching job at Alcorn State. With a defensive background, Hopson hired former UK offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson to lead an offense that averaged 509 yards per game in 2015.
In today’s scouting report we will strictly focus on personnel and statistics. Match-ups, schematic analysis, and a concentrated overview will be posted next week.
The obvious first point of discussion focuses on senior quarterback Nick Mullens. Mullens is listed on virtually every postseason quarterback award watch list as well as being named Conference USA Preseason Player of the Year; an honor that he was awarded a year ago. 2015 was productive for the Hoover, Alabama native: 4,476 passing yards, 38 touchdown passes, and 10 games in which he threw for more than 300 yards. His highest total was 447 in a game at Nebraska.
An interesting observation surfaced during film study. Nick Mullens’ prior offensive coordinator was Chip Lindsey who is now in the same role at Arizona State. The QB and Lindsey’s relationship dates back to Mullens’ days in high school. Game one without his trusted play caller will come in Lexington. Also worth noting: even with its high-flying turf show, in 2015 Southern Miss only beat one team with a winning record.
* USM averaged 22.6 points in its five losses to: Mississippi State, Nebraska, Marshall, Western Kentucky, and Washington.
**USM averaged 55.7 points in its eight wins: Austin Peay, Texas State, North Texas, UT San Antonio, Charlotte, UTEP, Rice, Old Dominion, and Louisiana Tech.
Receiver Mike Thomas and running back Jalen Richards combined for 2,489 yards in 2015. Both are now playing in the NFL. When watching Southern Miss film, it’s highly obvious that the duo was critical to offensive success that accumulated 7,000 yards. Their absence will be a significant adjustment. Thomas was Mullens’ go-to pass catcher. As discussed in a prior post, hypothetically when Mullens was asked his Top 10 plays; eight would have gone in Thomas’ direction. Richards was one of two running backs that rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2015. His loss also presents a challenge moving forward.
Center Cameron Tom is equally as touted as Nick Mullens. The senior center was named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List, Preseason All-Conference USA, and joins Mullens on the Reece’s Senior Bowl Watch List.
Joining Tom on the offensive line is Will Freeman. The 6’6, 290-pound Freeman spent his first three seasons on the defensive side of the football. The Kentucky game will mark his first start at left tackle.[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1310"] Ray Carlin | USA Today[/caption]
Junior running back Ito Smith is dynamic. The all-conference performer rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2015 by averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Smith is best when playing in space. His ability to catch the football coming out of the backfield will be a major concern for the Wildcats.
Much like Ole Miss and Mississippi State; Southern Miss enjoys recruiting success from the state’s junior college programs. Projected playmaking receivers Isiah Jones and Allenzae Staggers both played at East Mississippi which is now famous from the Last Chance U documentary. Also in the receiver corps are returners DJ Carter and Korey Robertson. Robertson is a promising and dynamic playmaker that’s returning from injury. Offensively Southern Miss is fast, really fast.
KEY RETURNING OFFENSIVE PERSONNEL
Offensive Line: Average size, 6’4 300-pounds
-- LT Wil Freeman 6’6 290 -- LG Brandon Farmer 6’4 304 -- C Cameron Tom 6’4 287 -- RG Devin Farrior 6’4 304 -- RT Ty Pollard 6’3 315
Running Back: Average size, 5’9.5 195-pounds
-- Ito Smith 5’9 195 -- Patrick Brooks 5’10 195
-- Nick Mullens 6’1 196
Receiver: Average size, 6’2 197-pounds
-- Isiah Jones 6’4 195 -- Allenzae Staggers 6’1 190 -- Marquise Ricard 6’2 192 -- DJ Thompson 6’3 200 -- Korey Robertson 6’1 210
Tight End: Average size, 6’3.5 258-pounds
-- Taylor Marini 6’4 247 -- Ricky Parks 6’3 270
KEY PERSONNEL LOSSES
-- WR Mike Thomas: 71 receptions, 1391 yards, and 14 touchdowns -- RB Jalen Richard: 1098 yards rushing, 5.9 yards per carry, and 14 touchdowns
BEST THREE PLAYERS
QB, Nick Mullens
RB, Ito Smith
C, Cameron Tom
WR, Isiah Jones
WR, Allenzae Staggers
Southern Miss ran offensive laps around the 2015 Wildcats. Thus, the elephant in the room must be addressed. Can Shannon Dawson take over a high-octane group and maintain its level of prowess or will he stumble as he did in Lexington? Dawson certainly has the offensive weapons to succeed after inheriting the nation’s top statistical drop-back quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher, a future NFL center and a group of receivers that possess size and speed. Was Dawson at fault for the offense’s collapse a year ago or were the players non-coachable? Was he hampered by a struggling defense and an apparent strained relationship with the head coach? These questions will all be answered in just over a week.
SOUTHERN MISS-KENTUCKY OFFENSIVE STATISTICAL COMPARISON