In 2011, Southern Miss was one of the best teams in the entire country, going 12-2 as Conference USA champions and finishing as the No. 20 team in the BCS rankings and 19th in the Coaches’ Poll. In the C-USA Championship game, the Golden Eagles beat the then-No. 6 team in the country 49-28, Houston, who was 12-0 and destined for a BCS Bowl game.
Then the sky fell as head coach Larry Fedora jumped ship to North Carolina and the most decorated quarterback in school history, Austin Davis, graduated and went onto the NFL.
USM hired Ellis Johnson as Fedora’s replacement, subsequently driving the program into the ground with a winless 0-12 campaign. Then Todd Monken was brought in from Oklahoma State to turn the program around.
Early success eluded Monken with the Golden Eagles going a mere 4-20 in his first two seasons. But now with three games remaining in Monken’s third season, the Golden Eagles are 6-3 and bowl eligible.
So how did Monken turn the program around to not only being relevant, but being a major contender for the conference championship? While it would be easy to point out changing the culture and having a better scheme, it is really all about the talent Monken has been able to accrue and develop.
Monken’s ability to bring in difference makers like Nick Mullens, Michael Thomas, Jalen Richard, Ito Smith and Casey Martin on offense and D’Nerius Antoine, Brian Anderson, Dylan Bradley and Kalan Reed on defense has been the biggest reason for USM’s success.
Mullens was the 2012 Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year and was committed to play UAB before Monken was able to pluck the signal caller out of the Blazers’ backyard. Just a little over a week before signing day, Monken flipped Mullens from his commitment—a decision that has paid huge dividends as Mullens is now one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the entire country.
In December 2013, Monken secured Thomas’ signature—a commitment that at the time seemed insignificant. A lowly two-star recruit from Dodge City Community College, Thomas has developed into a bonafide playmaker as Mullens’ No. 1 target. With 727 yards and seven touchdowns on 40 catches, he is easilyone of the best players in the entire conference and was recently added to Biletnikoff Award Watch List—given to the nation’s top receiver.
Richard was a three-star recruit that Johnson was able to flip from his commitment to UL-Monroe. He had just two starts coming into the season, but has become the Golden Eagles’ lead back this season, racing to 808 yards and seven touchdowns in nine games this season.
Smith was a highly-regarded three-star back from Mobile, Alabama, who went into his senior season with Duke as his first choice school. But Monken was able to pry the all- purpose back away from one of the premier teams in the ACC, a Power 5 conference, and secured his commitment a week before signing day. Smith leads the team with 1,202 all-purpose yards in just his second season on campus.
Martin has proved to be one of the biggest steals thus far in the Monken era. Martin had spent three seasons with Houston, redshirting and catching just three passes as a member of the Cougars.
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Martin was able to transfer to USM and play immediately. Since his arrival, Martin has been a chain-moving slot receiver who leads the team with 54 catches and has been a dependable third down target for Mullens.
Antoine has been the biggest difference maker for a Southern Miss defense that has improved in every statistical category this season. Antoine originally attended Oklahoma State before choosing to go the junior college route.
Following a standout season at Trinity Valley Community College, he signed on with USM and has shined in his first year. After briefly spending time at linebacker, Antoine leads the team in tackles by a wide margin from his safety position while forcing three fumbles and came up with a big interception against Nebraska. On nearly every snap, one will see No. 12 around the football as he flies to the ball with reckless abandon.
Anderson was not even rated by Rivals when he came from Butte Community College in 2014, but he has become the anchor of the USM defense as the middle linebacker and is second on the team with 54 tackles.
Bradley was a part of Monken’s first recruiting class along with Mullens and has developed into a dynamic pass rusher, leading the team with 5.5 sacks. As a three-star recruit, he had six scholarship offers, including offers from Memphis, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. But the USM coaching staff was able to sell him on early playing time—a move that has certainly paid off.
Reed actually committed to the Golden Eagles in 2011 when Fedora was still the head coach. He stuck to his pledge even after Fedora left and Johnson took over. He could have easily packed it up and transferred after his freshman season concluded without a win, but he stuck with USM.
Monken and company are likely very glad Reed stayed as he has become a shutdown cornerback, leading the team with three interceptions and sealed the Texas State win with a textbook tackle right outside the end zone. Not to mention his insane one-handed pick against Charlotte.
While the USM coaching staff has taken a bit of an unconventional route in building the roster with a ton of FBS and JUCO transfers mixed in with high school recruits, it has done a great job of stockpiling talent. The Golden Eagles’ talent level is finally on par with the rest of the conference and a bowl eligible team with three games left is the result.