At practice, the USM football team no longer hears the fiery coaching style of coach Todd but that of a newly-hired, more soft- spoken Jay Hopson.
“[We are in] the learning stages of getting everybody right on the same page,” Hopson said. “I thought it was pretty good today.”
Southern Miss held its first spring practice on Tuesday in preparation of the upcoming 2016 season. Players took the field in bare-bones gear limited to helmets, and physical contact was minimal. However, what the Golden Eagles lacked in physicality on the field, they more than made up with intensity in their drills.
A successful season may have begun with this practice, in which all the coaches and players got to see each other in action for the first time. Yet, without pads and actual plays being called, minimal stock can be placed on the early practices.
“You can’t tell on day one,” said Shannon Dawson, the team’s newly- hired offensive coordinator. “Until you put pads on and until guys get some muscle memory to where they know what to do, it’s hard to tell.”
Last season, Southern Miss finished 9-5 and were the Conference USA West division champs. With most of the roster returning, the focus will be on the preparation that each player puts in for his spot on the team.
“There’s always a little more pep in your step when you know you have a chance to win a bunch of games,” said John Wozniak, wide receivers and special teams coach. “The preparation has been really good, and I think the guys have been focused.”
Noticeably, the team was aware of the presence of Hopson, their new head coach. Eyes followed him across the field throughout the practice.
Hopson is in his first season as the Golden Eagle head coach after making stops at LSU, Marshall and Memphis. USM marks Hopson’s second job as a head coach. In his first, he guided the Alcorn State Braves to a 32-17 record during a four-year period in which he took two SWAC championships.
Southern Miss came close to capturing the C-USA Championship last season, and they still have the same expectations to capture it this year under his new staff starting this spring.
“To be able to get back working towards a mission with some great teammates and great coaches, is what it’s all about,” said quarterback Nick Mullens, who threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns in his junior season. “Moving forward, it’s all about that championship.”
Players and coaching staff alike will heavily lean on Hopson’s leadership for this season. Only three coaches returned to the team from the Monken era. Wozniak, running backs coach Lytrel Pollard and strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin are still there after the untimely departure of Monken just a few days before signing day.
For the majority of the 2015 season, Wozniak was the special teams and wide receivers coach. Then, after former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left USM to take the same position at Arizona State, Wozniak was thrusted into the role for the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26.
Despite having his role changed twice in less than three months, Wozniak has stayed positive and said the transition has been seamless from Monken to Hopson.
“It’s been really easy actually,” Wozniak said. “He believes in all the things that help you win games, and that’s why he’s been successful.”
Once Monken left, the roles of the entire staff were up in the air. Most of the coaches left on their own accord, and some were replaced. Wozniak stayed but received a demotion after Dawson came into town after stops as offensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin and Kentucky.
“That’s part of this business,” Wozniak said. “I’m all in, and I’m in to win games. I’m a team guy and I never thought about it.”
Hopson’s leadership heavily influences the attitude of Wozniak and others. After an uncertain time for the USM locker room back in January, Hopson has taken his job by the proverbial horns and has swiftly moved the team toward success.
“He’s the leader of this program and I can just tell by the way he approaches the guys and the team,” Wozniak said. “He’s a natural leader and that’s going to be really valuable for us.”
With Hopson at the helm, the Golden Eagles have their sights on the highest goals in the conference.
“We want to compete for championships every year,” Hopson said. “Every year is a different journey and a different year and we know we have got to work hard to accomplish our goals.”
USM will continue practicing throughout the spring and culminating with the annual Black and Gold spring game on April 23.