Mid-Major School A loses High-Octane Offensive Coach B, then replaces him with Young High-Octane Assistant C. It is a formula that both Houston and Toledo followed this year in losing their successful coaches (Kevin Sumlin and Tim Beckman, respectively), and it makes sense. Offense puts butts in the seats, and once you go down the spread offense road, it is difficult to convince yourself to turn back.
Unless you are Southern Miss, anyway. In that case, you lose the leader of your high-octane, Conference USA-winning attack, and you replace him with … a 60-year old defensive assistant, who brings in a 58-year old, run-heavy offensive coordinator and a 57-year old defensive coordinator. Why go young, when you can go old?
Southern Miss surprised many when they went with Ellis Johnson in replacing Larry Fedora (over what would have been more predictable candidates like Fedora's offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and Murray State head coach Chris Hatcher, who led a high-octane FCS attack) but really, going against the grain is nothing new for the Golden Eagles. In a mid-major universe that typically sees programs rise and fall (because when they rise, they tend to lose their coach to a major-conference team, then start over), USM bucked the trend with both their ability to keep a successful coach long-term (Jeff Bower took over for the 1990 All-American Bowl, had the Golden Eagles ranked for five consecutive years at one point, and stuck around until 2007) and their odd, almost disturbing consistency. The Golden Eagles have finished with a winning record for 18 consecutive seasons and 30 of the last 34. They have been to 14 bowls in 15 seasons. Their hire of Johnson may have been a bit confusing, but at this point, you trust that they know what they are doing until proven otherwise.
After 18 straight seasons of between six and nine wins, Southern Miss broke through with a 12-2 record and a conference title in 2011. Fedora left for North Carolina, but his departure is not the only noteworthy one. Gone, too, are a record-setting quarterback, a couple of big-time receivers, an all-conference offensive lineman, and a wealth of defensive playmakers. Johnson inherits a program that always wins and recruits well for the mid-major level (a trend Johnson should have no trouble continuing), but he and his seasoned assistants certainly have some work to do, and the bar has been set pretty high.
Here's what I said about Southern Miss last April:
Since Bobby Collins took over in Hattiesburg in 1975, Southern Miss has had five losing seasons. Five! Yet ... in those 36 seasons, they've only won ten games once. They've won nine games six times, eight games three times, seven games 13 times, and six games seven times. They've been to 17 bowl games (13 in the last 14 years), but none more lucrative than a handful of Liberty Bowls. How in the world can a team be that consistently solid without either taking the next step up or falling apart?
No really, I'm asking you. This is one of the most staggering, odd accomplishments in sports. And in three years under Larry Fedora, the train has kept a-rolling with records of 7-6, 7-6 and 8-5. The offense has gotten a little better, the defense has gotten a little worse, and the records have stayed about the same. Not that fans have grown tired of the routine just yet -- Southern Miss set attendance records in both 2009 and 2010. […]
In a way, this is like saying the same thing about Clemson, but ... I really like this Southern Miss team's potential. Any improvement in big-play prevention last year could have meant 10-11 wins, and with solid starters returning, a semi-maintainable turnover margin (because it was based on picks, not fumbles, and their pick-proof quarterback returns), a stellar recruiting average, and a young stud at running back, this team definitely has the tools to make a run at Central Florida for the CUSA crown. It's almost boring to predict Southern Miss to just be pretty good -- at some point, you just have to figure they turn great or fall apart; of those two options, give me the former. Southern Miss is closer to being great than terrible, and if they're ever going to break through in a big way, it's going to be in Davis' senior season.
Ding, ding, ding! Led by a statistically staggering quarterback (Austin Davis finished just a few yards short of 3,500 passing yards and 500 pre-sack rushing yards) and some ferocious, experienced defenders (end Cordarro Law finished with 22 tackles for loss, linebackers Jamie Collins and Ronnie Thornton combined for 28, and corners Deron Wilson and Marquese Wheaton combined to defend 30 passes), Southern Miss not only broke through with 12 wins in 2011, but they came within just nine points and two tough upsets of an undefeated record. The Golden Eagles won at Virginia in September, ripped off nine wins in 10 games to finish the regular season (the only loss, perhaps the most surprising result of the season, a three-point loss to a terrible UAB team), then unleashed hell on Case Keenum and won the Conference USA title on Houston's home turf. Fedora accepted the North Carolina job, then stuck around to lead USM to a semi-lifeless win over Nevada in the Hawaii bowl.
Back in March, Ellis Johnson said something that was both common-sense and revealing:
"It's cute to go up there and draw it on the board," Johnson said. "But if you've got a bunch of guys and they're not good man-cover guys and you want to run a man blitz every other play, then that's not very smart. If you want to throw 60 times a game, but you don't have a guy that's accomplished enough to do that, then that's not very smart."
Or to put it another way, Southern Miss will not be throwing 60 times a game this fall.
But we probably already knew that based on Johnson's hire of Rickey Bustle as offensive coordinator, whose Louisiana-Lafayette offenses tended to run a significant amount of the time when he was the Ragin' Cajuns' head coach from 2002-10. The Cajuns were in the Adj. Run Rate Top 10 from 2005-08 before shifting to a more pass-happy attack in his final two seasons. Word is that the offense will stick with something of a spread attack, but one can probably expect the winner of an interesting quarterback race to put the ball in the respective bellies of Jamal Woodyard, Desmond Johnson and Kendrick Hardy as many times as possible in 2012.
Southern Miss' offense was incredibly balanced in 2011, both in terms of running and passing and in terms of who touched the ball. Four running backs, a receiver and a quarterback all ended up with at least 59 carries over the course of the season, while nine players (eight wideouts and a running back) were targeted at least 22 times. The average No. 1 receiver is typically targeted by between 25 and 30 percent of a team's passes; USM's No. 1, Kelvin Bolden, was targeted just 18 percent of the time. While the lack of "go-to" star power can backfire at times, it certainly means you are more well-equipped to replace stars when they leave, so while Bolden and No. 2 man Ryan Balentine are both gone, players like Tracy Lampley and converted quarterback Dominique Sullivan have already put on quite an audition for the No. 1 spot. And despite his 5'9 stature, Lampley was particularly intriguing, combining a 69 percent catch rate with a decent per-catch average of 12.2 yards. (Sullivan was more of an all-or-nothing passing downs guy, averaging 14.4 yards per catch but with a catch rate of only 53 percent.)
Lampley, Sullivan, Quentin senior Quentin Pierce and three-star youngsters like sophomore Chris Briggs, redshirt freshman Cooper Harrington (who had a lovely spring) and incoming freshman Keithon Redding should create a lovely receiving corps, but they will need someone competent throwing them the ball. Chances are, that someone will be junior Chris Campbell, Austin Davis' three-year understudy. But last year's backup Arsenio Favor (Campbell was hurt in 2011), three-star redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd, and four-star incoming freshman Anthony Alford could all have something to say about that. Favor missed this spring with an injury of his own.
Assuming USM does lean on the run, the strategy could very well pay off. The top four running backs all return; they combined for 1,873 rushing yards (5.9 per carry) and nine touchdowns, and they will be running behind a line that returns five players with starting experience (76 career starts), including second-team all-conference performers Joe Duhon (left guard) and Jason Weaver (a right tackle recently granted a sixth year of eligibility). It is possible the line will feature five senior starters.
If you were to create a checklist for creating a friendly environment for a new starting quarterback, it would look something like this:
1. Experienced offensive line.
2. Running backs on which to lean while you get your footing.
3. Go-to receivers on which to lean on passing downs.
4. Good special teams to help with field position.
(Actually, this is a list for helping experienced quarterbacks, too, but you get the point.)
With the aforementioned stars and most of a strong special teams unit returning (USM ranked 20th in Special Teams F/+), it appears Southern Miss can check off all four. The supporting cast is potentially fantastic. Now Bustle and company just need a quarterback to run the show.
Hello, I'm new Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tommy West. You might remember me from such films as I Made Memphis Good Once, This Fantastic Press Conference, and That's Bull***, Jackie Sherrill. I may be almost 58 years old, but I'm back in your life now because Ellis Johnson hired me as his defensive coordinator.
After a nondescript season as UAB's defensive coordinator, West inherits quite a few interesting pieces (much more than anything he found in Birmingham, anyway) in Hattiesburg. But while he will evidently attempt to maintain the 4-2-5 defense that helped the Golden Eagles rank 16th in Def. F/+ last season, he must replace some incredible talent in the Front Six.
Gone: End Cordarro Law, who made 22 tackles for loss on the season and got into Case Keenum's face on seemingly every pass attempt in the Conference USA title game.
Gone: Tackles Deddrick Jones and Terrance Pope, an active pair that combined for 48.5 tackles, 12 for loss.
Gone: Last year's top three linebackers, Ronnie Thornton, Jeremy Snowden and backup Tim Green. The trio combined for 143.5 tackles (79 from Thornton), 16.5 tackles for loss and 10 passes defended.
Your view on the 2012 Southern Miss defense reveals your glass-half-full or half-empty outlook on life. These losses seem devastating, especially when paired with the losses of two starting defensive backs (corner Marquese Wheaton and free safety Kendrick Presley). However, Larry Fedora recruited quite well. Despite these losses, it is conceivable that Southern Miss' entire starting lineup will consist of former three- and four-star recruits. Four-star junior tackle Khyri Thornton gets a serious chance to thrive this season, though he evidently will have to hold off youngster Rakeem Nunez-Roches to even start. Meanwhile, ends Dasman McCullum and Octavius Thomas will each get opportunities to prove their relative recruiting hype, as will junior linebacker Alan Howze and safeties like Emmanuel Johnson, Martez Thompson, Jerrion Johnson and Alex Smith.
And of course, as long as end Jamie Collins (19.5 tackles for loss, eight passes broken up in 2011) and corner Deron Wilson (17 passes defended) are roaming the field, the Golden Eagles still have some significant star power. The experience level may be down, but the Southern Miss defense has more upside than almost any at the mid-major level. Now the awesomely folksy West has to coax that upside into production. And the fact that his boss has been one of the best defensive minds in college football for a while won't hurt.
After years in fourth gear, USM shifted into fifth last year. It would feel disappointing for fans to fall back to even the seven- to eight-win range, but with a schedule that features trips to Nebraska, Central Florida and SMU and visits from Louisivlle and Boise State, the ceiling for USM's 2012 season might be somewhere around nine wins. Win eight in a major transition year, and you should be pretty happy.
I believe UCF should be considered this year's favorite in the CUSA East, but Southern Miss can match them in terms of overall upside. Ellis Johnson inherits a program with as strong a foundation as any in the mid-major universe east of Boise, but USM has just enough key question marks -- quarterback and some serious turnover in the Front Six -- to give UCF the nod. Still, the Golden Eagles should see only one or two steps backwards after their wonderful 2011 season, and considering all the talent they lost -- Austin Davis, Cordarro Law, Ronnie Thornton, Jeremy Snowden, Kelvin Bolden, Ryan Balentine, all-conference tackle Lamar Holmes -- that is a statement in and of itself. The hire of Ellis Johnson over some young, hungry, offense-heavy assistant may have been confusing, but even if it were a terrible hire, we might not know for a while. The program would remain in pretty good shape for a while even if they had hired me.