Golden Eagles freshman Trace Clopton has worked his way into a position that most freshman rarely see: a starting spot on a Division 1 offensive line.
With football, of all areas in the game, the offensive line is perhaps the most difficult for a young player to make the transition from the high school level to college and have an early impact. Even further, of all positions on the offensive line, many would argue that center is the most challenging position for a young lineman to perform.
For these reasons many have been captivated by the performance of Clopton through the spring and fall camp as he has toiled his way to the top of the depth chart as Southern Miss’ first-string center entering the 2018 season.
“I think we hit a home run with that kid,” Coach Shannon Dawson, the Golden Eagles’ third-year offensive coordinator, said. “It’s not very often that a kid comes in as a true freshman and does what Trace is doing. In most offenses, the center has to do more than the other four guys, but in our offense, he has to do a lot more. He’s got a lot of protection responsibilities. He can even flip the protection when needed. There are a lot of things we put on him, and [Trace] hasn’t blinked. So we’re very fortunate to have that kid.”
Such high praises are nothing new for Clopton, a three-star recruit out of Brookhaven, Miss., who was selected to USA Today’s All Mississippi First Team unit as a high school senior in 2017. The 6’2” and 290-pound lineman was accredited with a whopping total of 52 pancake blocks in his last year as a Brookhaven Panther, helping to lead the team to an impressive 11-2 record.
Among the 14 scholarship offers he received were other local programs such as Louisiana Lafayette, Memphis, Tulane, and Florida Atlantic; but Clopton committed to play for Coach Hopson and the Golden Eagles in October of 2017.
He enrolled at Southern Miss in the spring and became recognized as the consensus heir to Devin Farrior’s starting position during summer workouts. Both his teammates and coaches were highly impressed with his ability to quickly retain information within his first few months in the program and to make the proper adjustments to his game.
“He’s a Southern Miss guy,” offensive line coach Erik Losey said. “He’s got that edge we were looking for, and if he keeps on progressing I think he’s going to have a chance to be special. He has a lot of improving to do — and who doesn’t as a football player, especially a freshman playing with the first string group at his position — but he has to progress, just like everyone else.”
Southern Miss seemed to be a perfect fit for Clopton from the very beginning, as both his parents attended the school and his father, former high school football coach Tommy Clopton, introduced him to traditions of the Golden Eagles football program from a young age.
Trace’s favorite part of the campus and city so far after one semester in Hattiesburg has been the infamous hospitality of the people around him. “It’s like one big family here,” Clopton said. “Everybody holds the door open for you; everyone speaks to you; that’s just how it is around here.”
Coaches and players are almost all in agreement that the greatest challenges for a newcomer transitioning from high school to college are attention to detail and the speed of the game, both mentally and physically.
“A lot of high schools brag about being fast tempo, but let’s be realistic,” Coach Losey said. “There’s a reason there is another level after high school and another level after this. The speed of a football player does evolve and the game gets faster. For anybody that’s a challenge right off the bat, and it never stops being a challenge, especially if you’re an offensive lineman.”
“Everything just moves a hundred miles an hour at this level,” Clopton said. “It’s all about attention to the little details that we focus on so much in the film room.”
Although they will have a true freshman on the ball at center, the Golden Eagles boast an overall experienced group of starting offensive linemen, tasked with protecting first-year starting quarterback Jack Abraham and a stable of running backs led by Tez Parks and George Payne.
Clopton gives credit to his veteran teammates, who have gone above and beyond to help him learn and be successful in his first year with the team.
“Those guys around me are really the reason for all of our success,” Clopton said. “They’ve really taken me under their wings and made it as easy as possible for me.”
With many new faces taking the field at skill positions on offense this fall, much will be expected of the Golden Eagles’ offensive line. All eyes will be on Trace Clopton early and often as he begins his incredibly promising college football career.