Jay Hopson’s defense has the tough task of following a successful 2015 defensive unit under former Head Coach Todd Monken. The 2015 Southern Miss defense ranked second in scoring defense and third in total defense in Conference USA, though the defense struggled against Western Kentucky and Washington in postseason play. Back in February, Hopson decided not to retain defensive coordinator David Duggan, opting to go with Tony Pecoraro, who was Hopson’s defensive coordinator at Alcorn State for the past four seasons.
Under Pecoraro, Southern Miss will run a 4-2-5 base defense, also known as the nickel. This means that USM will line up with four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Though the Golden Eagles ran a 4-3 base under Duggan, the 4-2-5 was frequently used to combat pass-heavy offenses. Because the 4-2-5 utilizes five defensive backs, it is an ideal defense for defending against the pass-heavy spread offenses of the C-USA.
Southern Miss returns several experienced defensive backs in seniors D’Nerius Antoine and Devonta Foster, as well as juniors Picasso Nelson Jr., Cornell Armstrong, Curtis Mikell and Trae Collins. Last season, Antoine amassed 89 tackles, two interceptions and four forced fumbles for the Golden Eagles.
“I think those are the core guys,” said secondary coach Dan Disch. “I think they have to get better and they have to prove it every day. The key for the season is they have to get better every day. Every coverage has a strength and has a defense. Everything doesn’t stop everything. It’s just putting the pieces together.”
In the first half of Saturday’s game in Lexington, the secondary did not look so sharp after giving up three touchdown passes of over 30 yards to young Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker.
“We had to get adjusted to their speed,” Disch said. “I think it was just the first game, getting used to each other, getting used to the speed of the game. You know, you’re not playing the scout-team guys, but I thought we settled in and showed we can compete.”
“I felt like defense had pretty much done a pretty good job other than five plays and those five plays were huge plays,” Hopson said.
After struggling in the first half, the Southern Miss defense regrouped to shutout Kentucky in the second half and allowed just 56 yards of offense to the Wildcats.”
“As a unit, they got a long way to go, and we’ve told them that on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday,” Disch said. “We’re not even close to where we want to be, but I was just proud of them to get rocked early and to not get rattled and continue to play. Then, to shut them down in the second half, it shows we’re capable of being a good defense, but we’ve got to do it all the time, we can’t have lapses.”