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Talking Southern Miss With SMQ

In preparation for the upcoming NC State/Southern Mississippi game, I exchanged a few questions with Matt from Sunday Morning Quarterback. Many thanks to Matt for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find my answers to his questions about the Wolfpack here.

1) What's your sense so far: are the Eagles better than they were last

I’m still on the fence about this, because games like Florida and SE Louisiana have little chance of being more than hopeless blowouts (in opposite directions) in any year. Saturday is an even match up and should be a better measuring stick.

Quarterback is a liability, but Dustin Almond in his three years as starter never had a legit number one running back behind him, and true freshman Damion Fletcher has immediately grabbed that role by the throat. Fletcher is small (in the 5-10, 180 range) and wasn’t very highly recruited, but he had pretty obviously supplanted last year’s ho hum combo, Larry Thomas and Cody Hull, by halftime against Florida; considering USM backs are routinely held under 2 yards per carry against that kind of defense, his 127 total yards against UF was probably the best individual performance by a USM running back since Derrick Nix in early 2002. He came back with 122 and two touchdowns against SE La. on more than six yards per carry. Because its success running the ball is disproportionately representative of USM’s overall success (this is statistical fact), it’s a pleasant surprise to have some optimism in that area against a not-terrible defense for a change. The offensive line – four starters back – may have more to do with this than I’m giving it credit for, because my distaste for the Southern Miss offensive line is perpetual regardless of the depth chart.

The shutout against SE La. was the defense’s first since 2001 (I think), and hopefully a confidence-builder. People still seem to give USM’s defense props for its years of producing badasses and high rankings, but it fell off the map last year and could not stop anyone from running; I had hoped the middle would be a strength again, based on the possibility it would be manned by transfers from LSU and Southern Cal at tackle and a convicted manslaughterer from Kansas State behind them, but it looks now like the manslaughterer is moving to backup end to make way for a former walk-on quarterback returning from injury at middle linebacker, and the most productive tackle has been a USM-bred junior, Martavious Prince. The secondary is the only area - other than quarterback - that figures to be definitely weaker that in ‘05.

2) Southern Miss has a new guy at quarterback this year, right? What can you tell us about him? What kind of performance should we expect on Saturday?

Hopefully a very, very quiet one. The less Jeremy Young’s name is called, the better – not because he’s so terrible (though he possibly will be), but because USM is always and forever going to make more progress controlling the clock by running as long as conservatism reigns. This is fine against mostly overmatched C-USA foes; less so against, say, the ACC. Young and Stephen Reaves, a Michigan State transfer, looked sharp last week (Young was 5-7 with a touchdown and ran for two more), but couldn’t put the ball in the end zone without a short field against Florida and are better off handing off and making safe throws as long as the score and clock allow. Not what USM fans want to hear, but this is far from a "high flying" philosophy or talent set – the best news at quarterback, especially in the case of relative novices but for pretty much this entire decade, is no news.

3) Let's talk about the guys who'll be on the field while the Pack's offense is busy not scoring. Who are USM's defensive standouts?

This is a bit of the problem. USM’s had the past three C-USA defensive players of the year, all at linebacker. No one’s going to do that from this team; hard-tackling safety Brandon Sumrall is the only all-league-type player right now.

There’s a lot of the dreaded potential here, which might make 2007 the real culmination for this group. Depending on health, I should mention talented sophomore linebacker Gerald McRath, but he’s barely had a chance to play because of ACL injuries his first two years and is hobbled by something else entering this game. The leading tackler so far is James Denley, who filled in for McRath last year and was assumed to be benched, but has apparently improved enough to warrant one of the outside spots. I had high hopes for end Robert Henderson, a once-touted JUCO signee who had an alright junior year, but he doesn’t appear to have sniffed a quarterback yet. Cornerback Caleb Hendrix is pretty competent, but that’s about it.

Pressure is needed against Marcus Stone, who is worrisome despite his bleh numbers because he seems like the "gutsy winner" type, evidenced by his nice starting record and even a couple clutch, go-ahead scoring drives at the end of the eventual loss last Saturday. He came off the bench to lead NCSU back from 10 down in the fourth quarter against Southern last year, and for that is looked upon warily. Andre Brown, too, for even more obvious reasons – given that he was one of three consecutive running backs to hit a career high rushing total against USM, and that this also set the school record for yards in one game, Souther Miss fans do not consider him "flukey."

4) Jeff Bower always seems to put together good teams despite the recruiting limitations he faces. What's the secret, and can I give you Chuck Amato's phone number to pass along?

Players appear to improve at USM with experience, which is not the case everywhere. Fletcher is the extremely rare true freshman – or even first-year JUCO transfer - making a major contribution out of the gate. It takes a while for guys to come along, and the stars succeed in workmanlike fashion; during the span of my entire fandom, USM has not produced a single player in the "game-breaker" category, which is probably a sign of a) a mediocre level of talent entering each year, and b) good coaching.

Mostly, though, it’s just scheduling: NC State is probably the toughest of six home games, and that should say something. USM will take on a heavyweight or two, maybe three, but it helps to not have to play in a grueling conference like the ACC.

Speaking of scheduling, this is a fairly huge game for Southern, because its next four games are at Central Florida , at Tulsa , Houston and at Virginia Tech. If the Eagles come out of that stretch better at 3-3 or better, I’ll be more than satisfied, because it could just as soon be 1-6. Getting on the right foot against program like NC State is a key to preventing that.