Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles Preview: A new era begins

Eddie GriffinSenior Analyst IJune 20, 2008

The 2007 season was supposed to be USM’s year, as the Golden Eagles were the consensus pre-season favorite to win the C-USA. However, in what was Jeff Bower’s last season as head coach, the Golden Eagles finished a disappointing 4th in the East Division. While they were 4-0 on the road in C-USA play, they were just 1-3 at home. They finished the season at 7-6, with a 31-21 loss to Cincinnati in the Bowl. Now, there’s a new era underway, as Larry Fedora takes the reins. What will his first year bring?

Coach: Larry Fedora (1st year at Southern Miss, 0-0)

2007 record: 7-6, 5-3 CUSA

Starters Returning: 10 (6 offense, 4 defense)

Top Returnees: RB Damion Fletcher, WR Torris Magee, TE Shawn Nelson, WR Gerald Baptiste, RT Ryan Mckee, MLB Gerald McRath, LB Tokumbo Abanikanda, P Britt Barefoot

Key Losses: QB Jeremy Young, QB Stephen Reaves, WR Chris Johnson, C Rick Thompson, LG Chris Clark, RG Nick Dean, DE Matt Chatelain, DT Martavius Prince, NT Sean Merrill, DE Robert Henderson, CB Brandon Sumrall, SS LeVance Richmond, LB James Denley

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Lousiana-Lafayette

Sept. 6 @ Auburn

Sept. 13 @ Arkansas St.

Sept. 20 Marshall

Oct. 4 UTEP

Oct. 11 Boise St.

Oct. 18 @ Rice

Oct. 25 @ Memphis

Nov. 1 UAB

Nov. 8 @ UCF

Nov. 15 East Carolina

Nov. 29 @ SMU

Key Game: Nov. 15 vs. East Carolina. The Golden Eagles could play spoiler to East Carolina’s C-USA title aspirations, which could leave the players with a great moment in what could be a long season.

2008 Overview

This could be a season to forget for the Golden Eagles, unless a large group of inexperienced players can step up.

Southern Mississippi will have just 10 starters returning and a new head coach in Larry Fedora, who was formerly Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator. It’s Fedora’s first head-coaching job, but he has more than 20 years of coaching experience as an assistant at the likes of Baylor, Air Force, Florida, and OSU.

Fedora is known as one of the top offensive coaches on the college level, but he will have his work cut out for him, as the group at quarterback is a young one. Sophomore Martevious Young will likely grab the starter’s spot, but he will have two redshirt freshmen as his back-ups, so this will be a year of growth at the quarterback position.

Fedora will have some weapons returning on offense though. Last year’s leading rusher, RB Damion Fletcher, returns after breaking the Golden Eagles’ single-season rushing record with 1,538 yards and 15 touchdowns. Fletcher will take a lot of pressure off of the young quarterbacks, though it’ll be up to the new starters on the offensive line to also do the same.

Three top wide receivers return including Torris Magee, who led with 632 yards receiving. TE Shawn Nelson (5 TD catches in ‘07) returns for his senior season and will be a reliable target through the air. The receiving corps will also get a significant boost from one of the elite recruits in the country, as DeAndre Brown, who was rated the #3 receiver in the country by, is on track to be eligible to play as a freshman. The 6′6 Brown chose in-state USM over LSU, and his presence could mean less growing pains for the passing game.

The defense will be led by last year’s C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, middle linebacker Gerald McRath, who had 139 tackles and 4.5 sacks. The junior is being projected as a high first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, and he also tops our list of top non-BCS draft prospects. Senior Tokumbo Abanikanda will line up next to him.

While Southern Miss loses their two best defensive backs in CB Brandon Sumrall and SS LeVance Richmond, six of their top eight are back, including Ivory Bradshaw, who was out last year with a torn ACL. That is the good news for the defense, as they will have to compensate for the loss of the entire starting defensive line.

Besides Brown, there are several other recruits on both sides of the ball who could see significant early playing time, which could mean some big bumps in the road this season. There’s a good chance that USM’s streak of 14 straight winning seasons could come to an end, but at the same time, a bowl bid isn’t out of the question depending on how quickly the new starting lineups gel.

Either way, Fedora will be able to use this first year to put his stamp on the program and lay a foundation for the future, and with a lot of talent set to return in ‘09, any struggles this season could be quickly forgotten.