The Golden Eagles have been working hard all offseason and are eager to show it this weekend.
The offense is looking to make strides this year in explosive plays, which is something they lacked in producing last season, ranking 121st in explosiveness, according to SB Nation.
Head coach Todd Monken went out and signed a crowd of expe- rienced players and many are expected to be difference-makers this season. There will be a mix of returning starters and fresh faces ready to get the Golden Eagles back to their winning ways.
“I’m excited about the team we’ve put together,” Monken said. “I’m not worried about who we don’t have; I’m worried about who we have and finding a way to get better.”
The big plays were almost non- existent this past season, as the run game produced just 42 rushes of 10-plus yards and only one of 40-plus.
That has to change for USM to go into games confidently with teams on their schedule like Mississippi State, Nebraska and conference rival Rice.
Senior wide receiver Michael Thomas has become a very reli- able target in the passing game, averaging 14.4 yards per catch. After coming in late last season, Thomas feels as confident as ever with more time to learn the plays and better his routes this year.
“Everyday I am looking for things to improve on and also help get these young guys on board so they know what they are doing when I come out. I set a goal to myself to leave a legacy. We are going to surprise some people this year.” -Thomas
Another wide receiver that should see more touches is junior Marquise Ricard, who averaged
13.9 yards per catch. Two stud tight end transfers, Copiah-Lincoln Community College’s Taylor Marini and Lackawanna College’s Julian Allen, will also add less predictabil- ity to USM’s offensive.
“Southern Miss hasn’t had a tight end in a couple of years so I think I can help a lot,” Allen said. “My main goal is to help this team win football games.”
Running backs Ito Smith, Jalen Richard, George Payne and Tez Parks showed potential last sea- son in the open field. Michigan transfer Justice Hayes will also be in the rotation.
The challenge will be to get these guys a chance to explode in the open field for huge chunks of yardage. As they gain more ex- perience, they will also gain more opportunities to hit big plays.
Smith became USM’s go-to run- ning back last season, rushing 45 times in the first two games. He was injured, however, in the middle of the season, and Payne was the next man up for the starting spot.
Jalen Richard was a late star for the USM offense, as he averaged 6.7 yards per carry over the last four games of the season.
During an “under the lights” scrimmage this summer, Monken was most impressed with his expe- rienced senior running back. Rich- ard had the play of the night with a 52-yard touchdown run in which he broke several tackles, refusing to be stopped and outran a number of defensive backs.
Richard is becoming what Monken always knew he could be: an every-down back.
These running backs are all returning for the Golden Eagles along with nine of the ten members of the offensive line.
USM’s experienced offensive line is led by junior center Cam- eron Tom. Tom stands at six-feet, four-inches and is the heart of the Southern Miss offense. Luke Meadows, USM’s offensive line coach, is confident in Tom’s mental
and physical abilities to anchor the offense.
“It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is and shouldn’t mat- ter who the running backs are,” Meadows said. “It shouldn’t matter who the guards and tackles are around him. But (Tom has) done an excellent job.”
As a freshman, Tom earned Con- ference USA All-Freshman honors at right tackle in 2013. He moved to center his sophomore year and was nervous about learning the different techniques, but Tom ad- justed well to his new position.
Southern Miss will also depend on Rashod Hill, Oliver Bates, Devin Farrior, and Norman Price up front to protect their quarter- back and create holes for the run- ning backs.
For the receivers, three start- ers are returning this year, with the addition of Tyre’oune Holmes. Holmes, a redshirt sophomore, led USM in 2013 with 53 catches, but missed 2014 with an injury. Holmes should make an impact in the Golden Eagle offense this year.
Casey Martin is another wide receiver that should not be over- looked. He and Holmes are very efficient, combining to catch 70 percent of their targets in each of their most recent seasons.
“These guys (the receivers) have to make a decision every day to come out here, get after it and play with a little bit of an edge,” Monken said. “You have to build on that everyday. You don’t just show up with an edge.”
USM will have more options and depth this season at every posi- tion on offense. This offense has potential, and experience will lead to efficiency.
Monken believes his football team will win at least six games this season. He is constantly let- ting his players know about the confidence he has in them.
“We’ve got the right kind of guys here,” Monken said. “Now we just have to have an edge.”