For the first time during head coach Jay Hopson’s tenure at Southern Miss, there will be a change at the top of the defensive staff. Tony Pecoraro, the defensive coordinator who served as the Golden Eagles’ defensive coordinator during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, left this spring to serve as defensive coordinator on Lane Kiffin’s staff at FAU.
To replace Pecoraro, Hopson remained in-house to fill the void, naming position coach Tim Billings as defensive coordinator and Derek Nicholson as co-defensive coordinator. Billings now also carries the titles of assistant head coach and safeties coach this season, while Nicholson will also serve as linebackers’ coach in 2018.
While there are now two coaches on the staff that have the words “defensive coordinator” in their job descriptions, Hopson clearly outlined the chain of command that the defensive staff will follow on game day.
“Tim [Billings] is our coordinator and he’s the guy that’s going to call the plays,” Hopson said. “I kind of run everything like the military. There’s not two guys in there deciding, “What do we do, what do we do, what do we do?” Tim’s the coordinator, Derek’s the co-coordinator. I think they’re both excellent football coaches and Derek’s deserving of that title. So what we wanted to do was just make sure that we were rewarding guys that deserve that reward, you know?
Billings’ last stint as a defensive coordinator came in 1999, when he was a part of a Marshall squad that went 13-0. Hopson served under Billings as the cornerbacks’ coach for the Thundering Herd that year. Though it’s been 19 years since his last stint as a defensive coordinator, serving under a defensive-minded head coach like Hopson has made for an easier transition back into coordinating.
“It’s something I’ve done before; actually, Coach Hopson and I were first together at one time – I was the coordinator at Marshall and so we worked together,” Billings said. “It’s been awhile, but we’ve got a great defensive staff. Coach Nicholson’s a great football coach, and we’ve got Coach [Chris] Boone in. He was a defense coordinator at Murray State, and, of course, Coach Hopson’s a defensive guy, so it’s really an easy transition.”
For Nicholson, the title of defensive coordinator is a new one in his coaching career. Nicholson has been coaching in the high school and college ranks since 2011 and has served as the defensive line coach for the Golden Eagles from 2016-17. His new title brings more responsibilities, but Nicholson says he’s up for the challenge.
“It’s been good, being in a new position, you know, with the linebackers now not with the defensive line anymore – It was some adjustment as far as personnel,” Nicholson said. “I’ve had a great relationship with all the guys with the football team. But there were there were some adjustments, you know, more responsibility. But I look forward to that and the challenge this year, I’m excited.”
Like Hopson described, Billings confirmed that he will be responsible for play calling and will be in the booth on game day. Nicholson will stay on the sidelines and will be responsible for making adjustments to the defense and energizing the defensive unit on the sidelines, a situation that Billings thinks will work well in 2018.
“[Nicholson] will be on the sideline motivating the kids, making adjustments, things like that,” Billings said. “So it’s a perfect scenario for us; you can’t have a better on the field guy than him.”
Obviously, the biggest thing that both coaches will have to manage and contend with this season is the on-field defensive personnel currently in place. The team returns many key contributors at the defensive line and linebacker spots. Billings mentioned players like seniors LaDarius Harris and Delmond Landry, sophomore Jacques Turner, and junior Demarrio Smith as guys who will contribute heavily to the defensive line this season. In the linebacker corps, the group returns Sherrod Ruff, who took a redshirt year last season due to injury. Paxton Schrimsher also returns for his junior year to further solidify that group.
However, the one area that will be a question mark for the defense will be the secondary. The only notable returning player in that position group is redshirt senior safety Picasso Nelson Jr, who missed the entire 2017 season due to injury.
“The place we lost all five secondary guys, that’s the battle right now – who’s going to be ready to play there,” Billings said. “Of course we’ve got Picasso back, a three-year starter, so that gives us a little stability back there, and so right now, we’ve got defensive line, linebackers; we’ve got a lot of guys to roll, secondary; we’re still trying to figure out who those guys are going to be.”
Another thing that may change during the transition from an old coordinator to a new coordinator is the defensive scheme that a defense utilizes. Under Pecoraro, the Golden Eagles utilized a base 4-2-5 “nickel” defense. Not much will change in terms of scheme this season, according to Nicholson, who mentioned that the 4-2-5 will remain the base defense for the unit in 2018.
“You know every year every coaching staff makes small tweaks, small adjustments, a lot of that is tailored to your personnel and putting your better players in positions to affect a football game and kind of covering up some of your weaknesses that you feel like are not your strengths, and so every year defensive coaches tailor and tweak their schemes because of their personnel,” Nicholson said. “So you know it’ll be fairly the same where we’re still going to be that aggressive, attacking style four-two-five base defense, that’s multiple, and so that won’t change.”
While much may have changed over the course of the 2018 offseason, much will remain the same for the Southern Miss defense. The duo of Billings and Nicholson has experience with the returning personnel, and with no major scheme change, players will remain familiar with the defensive playbook. Having one coordinator focus on play-calling and scheme and one focus on motivating players and making adjustments is a setup that may benefit the defense in 2018.