From out of nowhere, weeks after the Heart of Dallas Bowl game versus Washington, then-USM Head Coach Todd Monken announced he would be taking over as Offensive Coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It sent power waves of shock and disappointment throughout the Southern Miss faithful and especially the football players and coaches. Yours truly was also outraged at the timing of Monken’s decision. So much so that my personal tweets on Twitter lost me my position at the radio station that I was doing a sports show at. (It ended up working out as another station hired me to do play-by-play for high school sports.) The timing was horrible as a lot of the coaches that were available had been snatched up.
The Eagle family, in general, according to Twitter, wanted then-USM Defensive Coordinator David Duggan to be the next Southern Miss Head Coach. But Athletic Director Bill McGillis told everyone that he would find the best fit for Southern Miss and a coach that would get on the progression that had been re-started. Enter Eagle Head Coach Jay Hopson, a Vicksburg, MS native and a very well known member in the Mississippi High Community of Coaches and Players. (I am from Natchez which is also on the Mississippi River). Hopson was way too familiar with the Golden Eagle family since he was the Defensive Backs Coach under former Head Coach Jeff Bower. There are still people in place in the Athletic Department who were there when Hopson coached before at Southern Miss. Hopson is also one heck of a recruiter, which is definitely an ace up his sleeve. Still learning the game of football at age 47, Hopson is in just his second head coaching stint after leaving Alcorn State where he was the first white head coach ever hired by the SWAC. While at ASU, Hopson won the SWAC title in 2014 and 2015.
Hopson played College ball at one of USM’s sister schools (Ole Miss) and then did his undergrad at Tulane. From there Hopson coached at LSU, Memphis, Southern Miss, Florida, Marshall and Michigan. Hopson will bring a lot to the table for USM which has tons of talent returning for the 2016 season. C-USA member USM finished 2015 with a 9-5 record, losing to WKU in the C-USA Championship Game and then Washington in the bowl game.
Senior QB Nick Mullens returns for the Eagles having thrown for 4476 yards and 38 TD’s with an average of 319 yards passing per game. Incredible for just last year. Mullens only threw 12 interceptions out of 521 attempts with a 63.5 completion ratio. “Nick has so much savvy, so much high football IQ, such a fun player to watch as a Senior Quarterback” said Hopson. The first year head coach is glad to have a Senior QB. Expectations for Mullens are to just keep doing what he has been doing and to keep leading the team.
Junior running back Ito Smith will also return for his third year, playing in the backfield along with the return of Junior running back George Payne. Smith rushed for 1156 yards on 171 carries with 10 TD’s. “It is (a luxury), when you have a returner like Ito (Smith) coming back. Then you have Payne coming back off an injury. You also have Tez Parks coming back off an injury. Both of those guys have played in the past. Then you have a guy like Pat Brooks who was redshirted last year. I personally watched him every day on the scout team so I know the potential that he has. I feel pretty good about the group of guys we have going into this season,” said Hopson.
The Eagles have had a few scrimmages and most have been good for Hopson. “The intensity is there but you know its spring. I think the D has started a little slow and the O started a little high but you know its spring,” Hopson said. Defensively the Eagles will need some help at linebacker. “We have had some guys that have had a good spring, Elijah (Parker) and C.J. (Perry) are starting. Jeremy (Sangster) and (Sherrod) Ruff have really done some good things this spring. We’ve been really pleased with those two guys.”
Overall, Hopson is pleased about how things are going in spring practice. “I believe we have a few. The best thing is leadership by example. That’s what probably speaks louder than anything. I think we have good overall team chemistry and leadership. At the end of the day, I’ve been pleased with our guys, we work hard. We’ve got some natural leaders out here,” Said Hopson.
The 2016 schedule has two SEC teams that feature the Kentucky Wildcats and the LSU Tigers. The Kentucky game will be played in Lexington on the first weekend of college football and look for that game to maybe make the Thursday night special as both teams are expected to have good seasons. The LSU game will be October 15 and for LSU, its right before its nemesis Ole Miss. Southern Miss won 20-18 in its last meeting in Baton Rouge over LSU in 1994. USM also has a favorable home schedule with Troy, Marshall, Rice and Louisiana Tech visiting the Rock.
Hats off to the USM baseball team as it beat #8 Ole Miss 5-1 in Oxford on Wednesday night to help Southern Miss to a 26-8 record and 11-1 in C-USA. Southern Miss can possibly host a regional if they can take the C-USA title but games with Rice and FAU, who are both ranked in the top 25, are still to be played. Southern Miss is currently ranked as high as 18 in one poll and 28 in another. The Rice game is a possibility for TV and will be played on EagleFest Weekend April 22-24. The spring game will be played at Noon on Saturday the 23. Be sure to catch my article in two weeks on the Southern Miss spring game and Baseball updates. SMTTT!