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The big 2015 Southern Miss football guide: It's a long road back

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The 128-team countdown is still wondering how the heck that happened to the Golden Eagles.

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Rebound vs. dead cat bounce

The consistency was admirable, but there was never any major breakthrough. Or at least, there hadn't since 1999, when USM finished 9-3 and 14th in the AP Poll.

In 2011, Southern Miss got its breakthrough, finishing 12-2 and winning Conference USA.

In 2012-13, Southern Miss went 1-23.

Fedora left for North Carolina after 2011, but while USM had a heavy senior class, it still seemed as if there were a few pieces left over for new head coach Ellis Johnson. Regardless, the Golden Eagles' 18-year win streak ended with a zero-win season.

And in 2013, the team got even worse.

It almost feels like cruelty to bring it up every year, but it still blows my mind that the steadiest mid-major program for almost two decades could fall apart overnight. Southern Miss was over .500 every year from 1994 to 2011, never finishing with fewer than six or more than nine wins, then went full-on Achilles, killing itself to finally break through and collapsing after crossing the finish line.

Adding 2014, the Golden Eagles are now 4-32 since the end of the Larry Fedora era. That would be awful for any team, much less one so solid for so long.

But there might be a silver lining: after a stunning two-year collapse, Southern Miss actually improved. It wasn't by much -- a 3-9 record with a No. 110 F/+ ranking isn't a surge -- but it was a bounce. And now we get to see if it was the result of some "they were almost impossibly bad in 2013" regression to the mean, or some actual program progression that will continue.

Southern Miss will have all the offensive experience you could possibly want and depth of options at positions that were still lagging last fall. The defense will be starting over, and because of that, it's hard to imagine any significant breakthrough in Todd Monken's third year, but another step forward is a possibility. When you fall through a trap door, there's no quick way out, but improvement can still feel like improvement.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 110
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug at Mississippi State 13 0-49 L 5% -38.2 0%
6-Sep Alcorn State N/A 26-20 W 18% -21.8 37%
13-Sep at Alabama 2 12-52 L 10% -29.8 0%
20-Sep Appalachian State 104 21-20 W 71% 12.8 61%
27-Sep Rice 86 23-41 L 22% -17.9 2%
4-Oct at Middle Tennessee 87 31-37 L 34% -9.5 13%
18-Oct at North Texas 125 30-20 W 55% 2.9 62%
25-Oct Louisiana Tech 35 20-31 L 38% -7.3 3%
1-Nov at UTEP 90 14-35 L 38% -7.2 17%
8-Nov Marshall 17 17-63 L 15% -24.4 0%
13-Nov at UTSA 109 10-12 L 60% 5.7 72%
29-Nov UAB 79 24-45 L 7% -34.9 0%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 21.9 101 32.7 94
Points Per Game 19.0 117 35.4 111

2. Schedule-dependent growth

If you squint, you can see a little bit of in-season growth from Southern Miss in the above percentile chart. The Golden Eagles' average percentile performance was 25 percent through the first five games, then 41 percent in the next four before a late fade.

That growth (if it actually existed) seemed dependent on the quality of the opponent. Southern Miss played its best games against its worst opponents, and more of those came in the middle of the year.

  • Average percentile performance (vs. F/+ top 40): 17% (average score: Opponent 49, USM 12)
  • Average percentile performance (vs. No. 41-100): 25% (average score: Opponent 40, USM 23)
  • Average percentile performance (vs. No. 101+): 51% (average score: USM 22, Opponent 18)

(Here's where I remind you that these percentile performances are opponent-adjusted numbers, so while it seems like a no-brainer to say a team fared better against bad opponents, that's not necessarily true.)

The offense, lacking entirely in big-play capability, had a low ceiling no matter the opponent. But the Southern Miss defense seemed capable of dominating less athletic offenses.

What that might mean for 2015 is hard to say since the offense returns just about everybody and the defense does not. But it does hint at a D that is reliant on aggressiveness but didn't have enough.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.73 121 IsoPPP+ 76.5 119
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 37.4% 109 Succ. Rt. + 96.8 79
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 32.3 111 Def. FP+ 98.0 92
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.4 121 Redzone S&P+ 80.9 122
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 28.7 ACTUAL 26 -2.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 100 110 85 119
RUSHING 124 114 94 121
PASSING 34 105 64 116
Standard Downs 109 95 111
Passing Downs 95 45 116
Q1 Rk 89 1st Down Rk 94
Q2 Rk 123 2nd Down Rk 93
Q3 Rk 103 3rd Down Rk 122
Q4 Rk 70

3. Big plays nowhere to be found

First, the encouraging part: Southern Miss' offense was woefully inefficient in 2013 (Success Rate+ rank: 121st) and improved dramatically last fall (79th).

Second-year starting quarterback Nick Mullens was asked to do less because the run game was slightly more reliable (from "maybe the worst in the country" in 2013 to merely bad), and he responded by raising his completion rate from 49 percent to 60, lowering his sack rate from 8.3 to 5.4 percent, and cutting his interception rate from 5.1 to 2.5 percent.

Meanwhile, the big plays disappeared. Mullens averaged 11.3 yards per completion, and the run game produced 42 rushes of 10-plus yards (119th in the country) and just one of 40-plus. Southern Miss had a much better relationship with the chains, but when you aren't breaking off big gains, you eventually stall. This struggle had a role in USM averaging a woeful 3.4 points per scoring opportunity.

There is hope. Michael Thomas became a reliable passing downs target, averaging 14.4 yards per catch, and two freshmen (Marquise Ricard and former star recruit James Cox) averaged at least 13.9. Plus, backs Ito Smith, Jalen Richard, and Tez Parks (two of whom were freshmen) showed potential in the open field -- they just didn't get into the open field enough. Perhaps as the experience levels improve, explosive players will get more opportunities to explode.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Nick Mullens 6'1, 196 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7817 218 365 2470 12 9 59.7% 21 5.4% 6.1
Cole Weeks
59 112 761 2 5 52.7% 13 10.4% 5.3
Tyler Matthews
(TCU)
6'4, 215 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8957
Parker Adamson 6'4, 214 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7593
Gunner Roach 6'1, 176 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8004
Gabe Green 6'1, 210 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8074

4. Incumbent faces a tough reelection battle

Mullens improved in just about every way a quarterback can.

A second-year starting sophomore, he wasn't ready to torch good defenses yet -- against Mississippi State and Alabama, he was 39-for-77 for 419 yards, two interceptions, and four sacks (yards per attempt, including sacks: 4.9) -- but when punching in the right weight class, he showed quite a bit of potential. In a four-game span against Appalachian State, Rice, MTSU, and North Texas, he completed 109 of 175 passes (62 percent) for 1,282 yards, eight touchdowns, six interceptions (a bit high), and eight sacks. Yards per attempt: 6.7. His passer rating was at least 125.2 in three of the four games, as well.

Mullens made mistakes, but he was a sophomore with a young receiving corps and a shaky line. He was only going to be able to do so well.

When you start as a freshman and sophomore, you assume you will start as a junior and senior. But Mullens has a battle on his hands. TCU transfer and former four-star recruit Tyler Matthews is now in Hattiesburg, and Monken has said each (not to mention sophomore Parker Adamson and redshirt freshman Gunner Roach) will get a shot at the starting job. Roach was a three-star recruit according to the 247Sports Composite, as was incoming freshman Gabe Green. I assume that Mullens keeps the job, but he'll have to continue improving.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Ito Smith RB 5'9, 182 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8354 136 536 2 3.9 4.9 29.4% 3 1
George Payne RB 6'0, 207 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 86 271 6 3.2 2.6 25.6% 0 0
Jalen Richard RB 5'8, 207 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8054 42 236 1 5.6 7.3 35.7% 2 0
Nick Mullens QB 6'1, 196 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7817 28 173 0 6.2 5.1 50.0% 6 2
Tez Parks RB 6'1, 193 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8432 28 156 0 5.6 8.7 35.7% 1 0
Cole Weeks QB
12 67 0 5.6 4.9 50.0% 8 4
Patrick Brooks RB 5'10, 175 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7993







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Tyre'oune Holmes (2013) WR-H 5'11, 170 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7993 81 53 410 65.4% 18.9% 52.5% 5.1 -227 4.6 51.0
Casey Martin WR-H 5'10, 175 Sr. NR N/A 74 55 531 74.3% 16.3% 52.7% 7.2 -117 7.3 58.3
Michael Thomas WR-X 6'1, 186 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7783 68 41 592 60.3% 15.0% 52.9% 8.7 90 8.7 65.0
Markese Triplett WR-Y
63 41 566 65.1% 13.9% 44.4% 9.0 72 8.7 62.1
Marquise Ricard WR-Z 6'2, 192 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7519 61 30 417 49.2% 13.5% 55.7% 6.8 33 6.9 45.8
Jalen Richard RB 5'8, 207 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8054 38 24 184 63.2% 8.4% 55.3% 4.8 -107 4.8 20.2
D.J. Thompson WR-Z 6'3, 198 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8569 36 22 231 61.1% 7.9% 44.4% 6.4 -38 6.5 25.4
James Cox WR-X 6'1, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8246 26 15 219 57.7% 5.7% 53.8% 8.4 34 8.5 24.0
Kyle Foster WR-Y 6'3, 218 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7685 24 12 168 50.0% 5.3% 41.7% 7.0 15 8.0 18.4
Ito Smith RB 5'9, 182 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8354 15 8 76 53.3% 3.3% 40.0% 5.1 -24 4.1 8.4
Daythan Davis FB 6'1, 228 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7583 14 9 87 64.3% 3.1% 57.1% 6.2 -22 6.2 9.5
George Payne RB 6'0, 207 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 12 8 109 66.7% 2.6% 66.7% 9.1 13 9.6 12.0
Curtis Mikell WR-H 5'8, 168 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7759 6 6 48 100.0% 1.3% 50.0% 8.0 -20 7.9 5.3
Kyle Sloter WR 6'4, 218 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8113 5 2 12 40.0% 1.1% 40.0% 2.4 -15 3.5 1.3
Jay'Shawn Washington FB/TE 6'1, 226 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000
Korey Robertson WR 6'1, 200 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8093
Julian Allen TE 6'3, 234 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8056
Taylor Marini TE 6'4, 237 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7933

5. Options

Ito Smith, a true freshman in 2014, became USM's go-to back almost immediately, rushing 45 times in the first two games and averaging 15 carries in the final four.

He battled injury in the middle of the year, which gave then-sophomore George Payne a shot at the starting job. (He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in four games as the feature back). Jalen Richard averaged 6.7 yards per carry over the season's final four games, and Tez Parks carried 20 times in the first four games before fading into the pack.

All four are scheduled to return, as are nine of the 10 members of the offensive line's two-deep (including eight players with a combined 77 games of starting experience).

At receiver, six wideouts were targeted at least twice per game, and five return. So does bouncy possession receiver Tyre'oune Holmes, who led the Golden Eagles with 53 catches in 2013 but missed 2014 with injury. Those responsible for 86 percent of last year's targets are back, and now you add Holmes.

Depth doesn't matter if quality isn't involved, but while we wait to figure out the latter, Southern Miss has bucketloads of the former, and skillsets vary nicely. Holmes and Casey Martin are efficiency guys; they combined to catch 70 percent of their targets in their most recent seasons. Michael Thomas, Marquise Ricard, Kyle Foster, and James Cox are potential vertical threats if the horizontal game has defenses stretched out.

When you don't have a lot of proven talent, you want options. In every unit of the offense, Southern Miss will have that. And there's just enough potential to talk yourself into some pretty impressive numbers.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 80.1 2.18 2.9 32.2% 58.3% 25.9% 93.2 4.0% 10.9%
Rank 122 126 99 119 115 123 80 47 112
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Rashod Hill LT 6'6, 302 Sr. NR NR 23
Cameron Tom C 6'4, 287 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7893 21
Fred Moore RG
16
Brandon Farmer LG 6'2, 308 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7578 12
Devin Farrior RG 6'4, 304 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7908 7
Norman Price RT 6'4, 321 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8529 6
Jerry Harris RT 6'3, 302 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7993 4
Oliver Bates LT 6'2, 282 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7611 2
Randal Agee C 6'0, 292 Sr. NR NR 2
Thomas Collins LG 6'3, 318 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7593 0
Bradley Nugent C 5'11, 270 Sr. NR NR 0
Andrew Peterson OL 6'6, 295 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) NR
Jacob Fleming OL 6'4, 302 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7919
Tyler Stutzman OL 6'4, 265 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7300
Drake Dorbeck OL 6'6, 320 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7959
Ty Pollard OL 6'6, 302 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) N/A

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.93 108 IsoPPP+ 90.6 97
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.5% 97 Succ. Rt. + 93.6 95
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 26.8 124 Off. FP+ 94.0 123
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.6 91 Redzone S&P+ 98.9 66
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.0 ACTUAL 16.0 0.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 106 100 93 97
RUSHING 112 85 76 92
PASSING 84 99 110 92
Standard Downs 89 76 96
Passing Downs 97 118 77
Q1 Rk 64 1st Down Rk 97
Q2 Rk 111 2nd Down Rk 116
Q3 Rk 71 3rd Down Rk 83
Q4 Rk 118

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 100.5 2.84 3.21 38.6% 59.2% 20.2% 64 2.6% 5.1%
Rank 60 53 57 59 21 52 118 112 108
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Dasman McCullum DE
12 49.5 7.4% 13.0 4.5 1 1 4 1
Rakeem Nunez-Roches DT
11 45.0 6.7% 14.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Adam Williams NT
12 30.5 4.6% 4.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Michael Smith DE 6'4, 277 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7000 10 23.5 3.5% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dylan Bradley BANDIT 6'1, 265 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8237 8 20.5 3.1% 5.0 3.0 0 0 1 0
Wil Freeman DT 6'6, 261 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8133 11 10.5 1.6% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Draper Riley NT 6'4, 289 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7933 9 10.0 1.5% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Ja'Boree Poole BANDIT 6'2, 241 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7685 12 8.0 1.2% 1.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Nic Bekkers DL
11 6.5 1.0% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Rod Crayton DL 6'1, 287 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8484 5 4.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jerry McCorvey DL 6'3, 250 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7944 12 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jon Michael Edwards DE 6'4, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8352
Ricky Parks DE 6'3, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8411
Derrick Dixon DE 6'3, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7956
LaDarius Harris DT 6'1, 280 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7991
Jauan Collins DT 6'0, 295 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7893






6. The strongest unit rebuilds

In 2014, Southern Miss' front began to look like the line you remember from the 2011 Conference USA championship squad. The Golden Eagles were great in short-yardage situations and inevaded the backfield against the run. The duo of Dasman McCullum and Rakeem Nunez-Roches combined for 19.5 non-sack tackles for loss, and nose tackle Adam Williams pitched in another four.

The run defense was only decent because of what tended to happen when a runner got past the line, and these players weren't as effective at rushing the passer as they were at stuffing running backs, but defensive coordinator David Duggan had something to work with. Past tense. McCullum, Nunez-Roches, and Williams are gone.

Hope is not lost: five players who were at least minor role-players last year return, including pass rush specialist Dylan Bradley. Tackles like Wil Freeman and Draper Riley had decent pedigrees when they showed up in Hattiesburg. If one of two JUCO linemen (either Ricky Parks or Derrick Dixon) shows up ready, and if former star recruit Jon Michael Edwards can live up to his three-star billing, maybe the line will be fine. Treading water is the goal.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Alan Howze WLB
12 56.5 8.5% 2.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Brian Anderson MLB 5'10, 248 Sr. NR NR 8 51.5 7.7% 3.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Elijah Parker LB 6'2, 208 Jr. NR NR 10 30.5 4.6% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Terrick Wright WLB 6'2, 228 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7000 12 17.0 2.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Justin Penn SPUR
11 11.0 1.6% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
David Bertucci SPUR 5'11, 198 Sr. NR NR 9 6.5 1.0% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
C.J. Perry MLB 6'0, 233 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 12 6.5 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Darian Yancey LB 6'1, 225 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8106
Paxton Schrimsher LB 6'3, 225 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8215








7. Creating pressure

Even with the trio of star linemen, the pass rush really did lack. McCullum, Nunez-Roches, and Bradley combined for a decent 10.5 sacks; the rest of the team had 3.5, and the linebackers had none. None!

Injuries and shuffling were issues -- of the five linebackers to average at least one tackle, three missed time. And healthy or not, there was almost no disruptive play. If the line didn't make a play, the secondary was going to have to.

Middle linbacker Brian Anderson missed one-third of the season and still nearly led the team in tackles, which suggests he is a steady tackler if nothing else, but this unit will need to produce more ... which is to say is needs to produce something at all.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jacorius Cotton BS
12 60.5 9.1% 3 1 0 5 1 1
Emmanuel Johnson FS
12 56.0 8.4% 3.5 0 0 2 0 0
Kalan Reed CB 5'11, 191 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7600 12 32.0 4.8% 1 0 2 9 0 0
Picasso Nelson Jr. CB 5'10, 187 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7785 12 28.5 4.3% 0 0 2 7 0 0
Jomez Applewhite CB 6'1, 177 So. 2 stars (5.4) NR 12 26.5 4.0% 2.5 0 2 1 1 0
Cornell Armstrong DB 5'11, 175 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8159 12 26.0 3.9% 3 0 0 4 0 0
Trae Collins CB 5'11, 183 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7600 10 12.0 1.8% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Troy Jeter BS 5'11, 180 Jr. NR NR 10 4.5 0.7% 0 0 0 1 1 0
Kevin Williams Jr. FS 5'11, 194 So. NR NR 6 4.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kelsey Douglas DB 5'11, 192 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7959 5 2.5 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Urell Johnson DB N/A 6 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Evan Osborne DB 6'3, 198 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7752
Xavier Marion DB 6'0, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7693
Walden Davis DB 5'10, 192 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8500
DeShadrick Truly DB 6'0, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8100
Devonta Foster DB 6'0, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8000
D'Nerius Antoine DB 6'0, 231 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) NR








8. Now the strongest defensive unit

If the front seven holds, I'm not worried about the secondary. Aggressive safeties Jacorius Cotton and Emmanuel Johnson are gone, but senior corner Kalan Reed returns, as does a foursome of exciting sophomores.

Picasso Nelson Jr., Jomez Applewhite, and Cornell Armstrong combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and 16 passes defensed, and Trae Collins saw decent playing time as well. Plus, redshirt freshman Walden Davis (a 247 three-star) and a trio of JUCO transfers could fill in an exciting two-deep. There could still be some youth-related issues, but with minimal help from the front seven, this unit should be decent. And it should be downright awesome in 2016-17.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tyler Sarrazin 6'3, 204 Jr. 66 39.5 4 19 17 54.5%
Matthew Moseley 5'10, 163 Sr. 1 36.0 0 1 0 100.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Corey Acosta 52 61.6 17 0 32.7%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Corey Acosta 21-23 13-14 92.9% 6-11 54.5%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Michael Thomas KR 6'1, 186 Sr. 26 24.0 1
Ito Smith KR 5'9, 182 So. 10 22.3 0
Casey Martin PR 5'10, 175 Sr. 15 8.9 0
Jalen Richard PR 5'8, 207 Sr. 2 9.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 108
Field Goal Efficiency 34
Punt Return Efficiency 42
Kick Return Efficiency 46
Punt Efficiency 99
Kickoff Efficiency 127
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 2

9. Cover the kicks

Michael Thomas and Casey Martin combined to give USM a nice return unit, and Corey Acosta was perfectly fine as a place-kicker. Southern Miss blocked three kicks, and opponents strangely missed field goals at a high rate. In all, special teams tended to result in a net win for the Golden Eagles ... at least, until the Southern Miss coverage unit got involved.

One-third of Acosta's kickoffs were touchbacks, but USM still ranked 127th in Brian Fremeau's kickoff efficiency ratings; meanwhile, half of Tyler Sarrazin's punts were either fair caught or pinned inside the 20, and Southern Miss still ranked 99th in punt efficiency. If you got a return opportunity against the Golden Eagles, you were making the most of it.

And now Acosta's gone, and opponents might not be as charitable on three-point attempts.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent 2014 F/+ Rk
5-Sep Mississippi State 13
12-Sep Austin Peay NR
19-Sep at Texas State 95
26-Sep at Nebraska 30
3-Oct North Texas 125
10-Oct at Marshall 17
17-Oct UTSA 109
24-Oct at Charlotte NR
31-Oct UTEP 90
14-Nov at Rice 86
21-Nov Old Dominion 108
28-Nov at Louisiana Tech 35
Five-Year F/+ Rk -17.9% (96)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 98 / 84
2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -10 / -12.7
2014 TO Luck/Game +1.1
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (10, 5)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 2.7 (0.3)

10. The slow climb continues

The offense seems to have potential, and if experience leads to efficiency, there is enough big-play potential to think the yardage and point totals could improve by quite a bit. That alone makes Southern Miss a nice bet to improve -- the offense should gain more ground than the defense loses.

Southern Miss was 110th in the F/+ ratings last year, and if the Golden Eagles can work their way into the No. 95-100 range this year, that could mean great things. Five of six home opponents ranked 90th or worse in 2014, and Southern Miss draws FBS newcomer Charlotte on the road. With seven or eight decent opportunities for wins, it wouldn't take many breaks for the Golden Eagles to improve to 4-8 or 5-7, maybe 6-6 with a good amount of luck.

There's no quick way back when you fall this far, but I don't think Southern Miss' improvement was a mirage. The Golden Eagles should take another net step forward and are still young enough that they should return 13-14 starters again next year. A year ago, there was nowhere to look for hope. This year, there's a path. That's good enough for now.