Now that Southern Miss has ended its season on the gridiron, it is time to take a look back at why optimism should be higher for 2016 than for the past season.
Southern Miss finished their season on a low note with losses against Western Kentucky and Washington, but there are several positives. A coaching extension, solid commitments and the return of several key players bodes well for hopes of an even better 2016 football season.
Head coach Todd Monken is reportedly looking to close the deal on an extension for his 4-year contract, featuring a base salary of $700,000, not including bonuses such as the $50,000 received this year from his team’s recent success. Monken’s contract is a hot button topic due to the fact that it is scheduled to expire after this upcoming season. Talks between Monken and the athletic department are ongoing, and the contract situation should be handled before National Signing Day on Feb. 3.
With 20 players leaving for a variety of reasons, including graduation and transfers, the roster touts a solid returning group. Nick Mullens, Ito Smith, Dylan Bradley and other stars on the roster will return for the Golden Eagles in an attempt to capture another winning season.
Four players leaving the roster—receivers Mike Thomas and Casey Martin, offensive tackle Rashod Hill and cornerback Kalan Reed—will all have a shot at the NFL. Mike Thomas, in particular, is getting a lot of recognition for his performance against Washington alone. Some draft pundits peg Thomas as high as a third round draft pick on Draft Day in April, while Martin and Reed will have to have productive pro- days to garner draft day attention.
In the spring, an influx of talent joined the confines of Southern Miss. To help fill out the 2016 roster, Southern Miss commits Marquez McNair, Demetrius Market, Jacques Turner and KaDerrion Mason, among others, will help bolster a roster filled with promise already.
Mullens belongs in his own conversation among the topics of Southern Miss football, and he will quickly emerge as the central focal point of this team’s success. Mullens finished sixth nationally in passing yards and 15th in passer rating. With uncertainty around the No.1 wide receiver position and a revamped offensive line, it will be imperative for Mullens to put up the same, if not better numbers than in his junior season.
Lastly, development within the USM ranks will determine whether this team can capture that elusive sixth conference championship. Twenty eight players were red-shirted this past season and are completing the strength and conditioning program of Zac Woodfin and are preparing to take the field. Several redshirt players stand out: senior Wil Freeman, juniors Julian Allen and George Payne, and freshman Dakota Siniard. These players, among others, should immediately impact Golden Eagle performance through their experience on the sidelines alone.
Despite their positives, the Golden Eagles do not go without their negatives.
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has left the program to take the same position at Arizona State, after leading a Golden Eagle offense that put up 40.6 points per game, ranking 12th in the entire country. His departure matters because of Mullens. Lindsey has coached Mullens since his days at Spain Park, where Lindsey was the head coach before coming to Southern Miss with Mullens in 2013. The linebacking and receiving corps will take a major hit, as seven starters from those positions are graduating. The Golden Eagles have made strides to shore up the receiver spot with four receivers currently enrolled at Southern Miss, and several should be coming on National Signing Day.
The linebacker spot is a different story, with senior Elijah Parker left as the only returning starter. There are several linebackers on the roster who could step up into the roles. As of now, there is much uncertainty in that area.
With just a few negatives and many positives, 2016 Southern Miss football just may end up being one for the ages.