Going into the 2014 season, the Golden Eagles’ defense had eight returning starters and seemed to have one of the more formidable front-sevens in Conference USA. But that was last year.
Gone are defensive leaders Alan Howze, Emmanuel Johnson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches from the 2014 Golden Eagle defense. Those left behind, mainly linebackers Elijah Parker, Brian Anderson and defensive lineman Michael Smith, will have to pick up the slack quickly in order for Southern Miss to compete this year.
Despite overwhelming odds, such as an average defensive performance and the departure of several starters, there is a belief the 2015 defense could improve.
Brian Anderson returns after a solid junior campaign and must become more vocal to help lead the young Golden Eagle defense.
“Being here for the second year and being comfortable with the system has helped a lot,” Anderson said. “I had to put in a lot of work during the spring and in the summer to have myself better prepared for my teammates. I have to get everybody lined up and know each position as well.”
One of many impact players could come in the form of D’Nerius Antoine, a JUCO from Trinity Valley Community College. Antoine started out at Oklahoma State where things did not work out for him, and he is looking for another oppor- tunity with the Golden Eagles.
Antoine played safety and linebacker at Trinity Valley and will play a similar hybrid role for USM after bulking up from 200 to 230 pounds in the offseason. Antoine spent most of spring transitioning to linebacker, but after several players like Parker, Terrick Wright and Sherrod Ruff stepped up, defensive coordinator David Duggan says that Antoine is now back at safety and will be a game changer on defense.
“D’nerius Antoine will be a dynamic player no matter where we play him,” Duggan said. “Whether it’s at linebacker or safety, he’s going to make plays.”
While impressed with Antoine, Duggan says that he has been most impressed with the improvement of his linebackers and that was the main reason he moved Antoine back to safety.
“I think our linebackers have improved tremendously and there’s a confidence with them now,” he said. “There’s depth that was not there before, there’s com- petition and all of them are just practicing with confidence.”
Another huge addition is the transfer from Auburn, linebacker Anthony Swain. Swain graduated from Auburn early and left their program in the spring. Swain not only provides depth for USM, but also some size that has not been here since Jamie Collins.
The Golden Eagle defense suffered many losses along the defensive side of the ball, but none bigger than along the defensive line. Nunez-Roches, the an- chor in the middle for the Golden Eagles last year, is gone, along with Dasman McCullum and Adam Williams.
Lack of depth along the defensive line will not be a major concern for the Golden Eagles even with the aforementioned departures. In the spring, Wil Freeman and Michael Smith have garnered the most time inside after bulking up in the offseason.
However, redshirt seniors Andrew Bolton and Quincy Russell have been rotating in for Freeman and Smith as well. Bolton and Russell are both graduate transfers from the Big 12 and provide depth behind Freeman and Smith that the Golden Eagles did not have last year.
Russell and Bolton also have the traditional size for defensive tackles, with both weighing in over 300 pounds and standing over six-feet, three-inches.
Smith and Freeman, both defensive ends last year, make the move inside with Dylan Bradley and Ja’Boree Poole getting the most reps at the ends with JUCO transfer Ricky Parks getting a lot of reps as well.
Bradley and Poole, both with experi- ence from last year, are both undersized, but have speed and will have to use their quickness to set the edge. With so many players rotating in along the defensive line, it will keep guys fresher and prevent injuries in the long run. Bradley, a major force in rushing the passer last season, says that competition in camp has been incredible with both the offensive and defensive lines making each other better.
“I love it, and to me, we have a whole different vibe out there. The offensive line brings it. They’re more physical and more vocal. If we don’t help season stats for 2014 ranked red zone each other get better in practice then we are not doing our job.” – Bradley
Another key transfer for the Golden Eagles is defensive end Naim Mustafaa. Mustafaa has impressed since arriving and will be a major force at defensive end with his rare combination of size (six-feet, four -inches) and speed.
The secondary was a bright spot for USM last season as they were one of the top ranked units not only in the conference, but also in the nation. However, they were led by safeties Emmanuel Johnson and Jacorius Cotton, who were the lone returners from the secondary a year ago. Now, the situation is reversed with Picasso Nelson, Jr. and Kalan Reed the lone returners in the secondary.
Nelson Jr. will move to safety to help cope with the loss of Cotton and Johnson and says he has tried to implement some of Cotton and Johnson’s game into his own.
“Flying to the ball is something I learned from,” Nelson, Jr., said. “He al- ways came down hill and I try to be even better and hit even harder than he did.”
Devonta Foster and Antoine, who are both over six feet and weigh in over 190 pounds, have the size to be big forces in the run game.
Antoine also does a bit of everything. He will come up in the box and make tackles. He snagged three interceptions and even tacked on three sacks while in junior college. Duggan will have fun thinking of new ways to use Foster and Antoine and has been raving about them since the spring.
Foster originally was not the starter at free safety, but after a lot of hard work and a slight hand injury to Nelson, Jr., Foster has taken over and looked impressive in camp. Foster will complement Antoine well with his height and speed going nicely with Antoine’s size and tenacity.
At cornerback, Jomez Applewhite and Cornell Armstrong will battle it out to replace Nelson, Jr., at the corner opposite of Reed after getting a lot of playing time last season. Reed has the most experi- ence and will be relied on heavily by Dug- gan as the boundary corner. Trae Collins will also push for playing time.
Regardless of how young the Golden Eagles will be on defense in 2015, one thing is for certain: they will be a high-energy group that will undoubtedly improve as they play together more as a unit.