College football is back after the longest offseason in athletics. Kentucky will take on Southern Miss in a game that has significant meaning for both programs. Non-conference wins are imperative in UK’s hopes of going to a bowl game as well as encouraging a wait-and-see fan base to go all-in. USM hasn’t defeated a SEC team since it beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa fifteen years ago. The Golden Eagles fully expect to leave Lexington with a victory. Something has to give. Quarterback Nick Mullens will be the week’s focal point. The following are players not named Nick Mullens that will have a substantial impact on the game’s outcome:
-- Both USM offensive tackles will be making their first college start on Saturday. LT Wil Freeman spent his first three years on defense as well as a short stint at tight end. The 6’6, 295-pound senior will be joined by redshirt freshman Ty Pollard.
-- Receivers Isaiah Jones and Allenzae Stallings will also be making their first starts on September 3rd. Both hail from East Mississippi Community College and were featured on the popular show, “Last Chance U.” Veteran DJ Thompson will be a stabilizing presence for QB Nick Mullens. His 2015 numbers: 55 receptions, 779 yards, and 6 touchdowns.
-- Guard Devin Farrior and center Cameron Tom combine for 55 starts. Tom is a two-time All-Conference USA performer as well as being named to the Rimington Trophy and Reece’s Senior Bowl watch lists. The USM interior offensive line is similar to Kentucky in terms of inside strength, skill, and experience. Returning starting guard Brandon Farmer is currently listed as second team on the depth chart. Oliver Bates bested the senior in fall camp. However, Farmer has started 25 games and will factor.
-- Southern Miss’s skill positions were hit hard by graduation. The Golden Eagles lost its top two receivers in Mike Thomas (1400 yards, 71 catches, and 14 touchdowns) and Casey Martin (80 receptions, 925 yards, 7 TD’s). In addition, running back Jalen Richard departed Hattiesburg after racking up 1,113 rush yards and 14 TD’s in 2015.
-- Running back Ito Smith is an energetic playmaker. Smith was USM’s all-purpose yardage leader with 1,876 in 2015--1,128 on the ground, 515 through the air, and 233 kickoff return yards. Nick Mullens’ and Cameron Tom aren’t the only offensive players on the national radar. Smith is a projected NFL prospect and has drawn national accolades. In order to win the football game, Kentucky cannot allow the two-time All C-USA RB to gain over 120 all-purpose yards.[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="540"] Chuck Cook | USA Today[/caption]
-- Safety D’Nerius Antoine and Nickel Picasso Nelson are highly reminiscent of Florida’s intimidating duo of Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye. Both Antoine and Nelson are two-time All C-USA performers. Their playing style focuses on disruption, forced turnovers, and physical tackling. Antoine was the Golden Eagle’s leading tackler in 2015. Picasso is a cerebral and versatile tough guy. Combined, the pair will be strong and eager to stop the run. This could lead to vulnerability against play-action-passes.
-- Defensive lineman Dylan Bradley is an undersized yet relentless playmaker that produced 6.5 QB sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2015. He will be moved all over the line-of-scrimmage in search of a mismatch. The disruptive senior will most likely be aligned on the edge during certain passing situations.
-Cornerback Cornell Armstrong is another All C-USA defender. The 5’11, 180-pound junior will be called upon to cover a deep UK receiver corps in man-to-man coverage. Joining him is another junior, Trae Collins. Collectively, the Southern Miss’ defensive strength lies within the secondary. Sound familiar?
-- USM’s defensive line averages 251-pounds. This size factor contributes to its expected defensive emphasis on Havoc or chaos. Havoc is comprised of blitzes, twists, man-to-man coverage, front multiplicity, and extreme risk taking. Furthermore, its intention is to pressure and confuse the quarterback. A defense of this nature is a high-risk, high-reward scheme.
Stay tuned, we’re just getting started with UK-USM coverage.