For every college football coach, their third year marks a change in the football program. After two years of recruiting, the majority of the new starters are his team, and this year is no different for Southern Miss Head Coach Jay Hopson.
“You know I feel the same every year,” Hopson said. “I only ever change game week. I’ll be a nervous wreck. That doesn’t ever change. Plus, football, you know we just had to get into the grind now. You know, obviously, you’re taking the ship out of the harbor. You have to put her out on the open sea. So you hope she holds water good and sees sail straight through, and that’s just football every year.”
Hopson posted 15-11 record during his first two seasons at the helm, which is tied with Curly Hallman as the most wins for a Southern Miss head coach in their first two seasons at Southern Miss. In his tenure, Southern Miss won the New Orleans Bowl in his first year in 2016 and received a bowl bid to play in the Independence Bowl last season, losing to Florida State.
Hopson has proven that he is indeed the adequate recruiter he was said to be. He has not only had strong recruitment classes, but his ability to find immediate impact players has been a key to his success. However, that will be put to test with the need to find 16 new starters. Crunching the numbers, Southern Miss graduated 11 starters from last year. Only six starters are left over from former head coach Todd Monken’s team. With that said, 16 of this year’s starters will be Hopson’s players, which means the team will almost be completely in Hopson’s image.
In 2016, Southern Miss was listed as the sixth best-recruiting class in Conference USA, as they recruited only nine three-star recruits. Despite the low number, several of those recruits became immediate impact players, such as Allenzae Staggers and Racheem Boothe. The next year in 2017, Hopson’s class was ranked as the second best in the conference, behind only reigning C-USA champions Florida Atlantic, as Hopson had 16 three-star recruits sign. Some notable players from 2018’s recruiting class were Jack Abraham, Trace Clopton, Ty Williams, DeMicahel Harris and Ky’el Hemby, all of whom will be viable starters.
“I like this football team, I can tell you that,” Hopson said. “I like this team’s work ethic. I like the attack in practice. They are a Southern Miss football team. They have a rough edge. We know on Saturday we have to come out and execute. That’s the key to success on game day. Again, this football I feel like this team has the right mindset and the right personality to be very successful, and now we just have to go execute on Saturday.”
Unlike most coaches, Hopson has a deep understanding for the Southern Miss program. Having said that, he has spent the majority of his football career at Southern Miss, a grand total of eight seasons with the team before he was hired as head coach in 2016. The 2018 team has several similarities to when Hopson was an assistant coach for Jeff Bower. This team has hard-hitting defensive backs, an arsenal of bruiser running backs and a quarterback that is more than capable of slinging the ball.
“I think every coach, including me and I’m no exception, you are going to take what you learn from your mentors,” Hopson said. “Coach Bower taught me a lot. He taught me a lot of football. He taught me a lot of things, so there is no question that I try to take what I learned. I always say I had two mentors: Coach Bower was one and coach Bob Pruitt [former Marshall head coach] was the other. I spent a large period of my coaching career with those guys. I owe those guys a lot. They gave me my start and the opportunities, no question.”
His recruiting classes have reflected in his team’s numbers. In C-USA, Hopson’s offense improved from the fifth best offense in 2016 to third best in 2017, while the defense was listed as the fourth best in back-to-back years. Despite the loss of Ito Smith, Hopson has shown that he can make the best with what he has had. In his two years, Hopson has not had a starting quarterback finish the entire season but has still managed to turn out competitive teams, which if anything proves his capability as a head coach.
“Jay Hopson is not bringing anything to Southern Miss,” Hopson said. “It’s just our time to hold the flag, and it’s a tradition that goes back way beyond when I was born. We’re just trying uphold the black and gold standard. I think our kids understand the tradition and history of Southern Miss, which something we’re trying to uphold each and every day.”
His success and devotion are arguably what culminated into extending Hopson’s contract until 2022. Hopson’s base salary will stay the same at $500,000 a year which does not include incentives. The most noteworthy change in his contract was an increase to pay his assistant coaches, which increased to $1,225,000 per year to pay 10 assistant coaches, four graduate students and one football secretary.
“One thing I can promise you is it’s all I wanted for those guys,” Hopson said. “Those guys work hard, and they deserve so much [for what] they do for our university. You can’t always put it on monetary value [of] the sacrifices those guys make. We’re blessed and we’re appreciative of that.”
Hopson has proved that he can string together successful teams and adapt to adversity, a task which has made many coaches falter. His focus is to propel Southern Miss into a consistent contender for the C-USA crown. Unlike most coaches that try to move to a bigger team for football prestige, Hopson says he has no plans for that and has made it clear.
“Southern Miss is where I want to be,” Hopson said. “I’m a Mississippi boy. I’m a South Mississippi boy. I love Southern Miss, I love the black and gold. Every person has their own agenda or things they want to accomplish in life, but you’ll be burying [me in] Vicksburg or Hattiesburg, one of the two.