The first Wednesday of February marked the beginning of a new season — recruiting.
National Signing Day is the litmus test for when coaching staffs see if their long trips cross- country, persistent phone calls and in-person meetings will actually pay off.
With less than a week into his hiring as the 21st Southern Miss head coach, Jay Hopson was concerned with keeping those precious 11 verbal commitments to Southern Miss.
After Todd Monken’s departure on Jan. 24, Hopson was formally hired on Monday, just two days before National Signing Day.
“I want to start this program and build it the right way,” Hopson said. “We have basically 11 initial scholarships. We are going to honor those scholarships.”
Hopson started behind the eight ball, but he was able to go through Signing Day without much disappointment or tribulations. Nevertheless, he did let some recruits get away from him.
The first disappointment for Southern Miss came by the way of long-time recruit Marquez McNair.
The Hinds County Junior college wide receiver decommited from Southern Miss to sign with University of Texas-San Antonio on Monday evening.
Days before signing day, McNair reassured Golden Eagle fans that he remained committed and also added that he liked the Hopson move.
“Great hire,” McNair said in an interview with the Hattiesburg American. “Ready to get this thing back rolling.”
Another solid recruit that slipped through the Southern Miss fingers was KaDerrion Mason, a three-star defensive end from McComb. Mason held offers from California, Kentucky, Memphis and Southern Miss, among others. Mason committed to the Golden Eagles on December 22, just four days before USM took on Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Mason never said that he was flipping, until Signing Day when Louisiana Tech announced that it has signed the talented defensive end.
On the positive side, several recruits stuck with the Golden Eagles even though USM was going through a head coaching change just 10 days away from Signing Day.
Hopson was hired within days of Signing Day, and solid recruits such as Laurel’s Keon Howard, Bassfield’s Racheem Boothe and Spanish Fort’s Jacob Johnson all stuck with their word and committed to Southern Miss. Howard, a Dandy Dozen dual- threat quarterback recently decommitted from Memphis and held an offer from Minnesota. On the eve of signing day, Howard spoke on why Southern Miss was an option. “It’s a great fit to have a chance to go out and compete right away,” Howard told the Hattiesburg American.
Howard passed for 43 touchdowns while only throwing 12 interceptions. Howard also rushed for three more touchdowns for the Laurel Tornadoes.
The Golden Eagles emphasized building in the trenches as they signed defensive linemen Lorenzo Dantzler and Jacques Turner. On the offensive side of the ball, Cru Birdyshaw, Jacob Johnson and Wyatt Richthofen were all brought in to greatly upgrade an already deep offensive line.
Size may not be everything, but it does mean something when those three newly signed offensive linemen total over 900 pounds combined.
Kwadra Griggs, a December enrollee out of Itawamba Community College, threw for over 2,100 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
JUCO wideouts Isaiah Jones and Allenzae Staggers both are transferring from junior college powerhouse East Mississippi Community College. Jones caught 19 receptions for 239 yards as a sophomore. Staggers caught 37 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns as a Lion.
Southern Miss is in solid shape heading into next season. Hopson arrives to a program that is in position to add another conference division title, returning a core that has experienced the ups, downs and the 2015 turnaround.