HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi football coach Jay Hopson uses one word to sum up his expectations for the Golden Eagles' spring practices.
"To me, more than any spring I can remember in a long time, there're more jobs that are just up for grabs," Hopson said last week during an interview at his office overlooking Roberts Stadium. "To me, that should make for a fun spring because that should make for a lot of competitiveness."
USM, which finished 7-6 in Hopson's first season at the helm after a 28-21 victory in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, has plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the football, either prima facie vacancies or younger players shouldering new leadership responsibilities.
Quarterback. Offensive line. Defensive line. Safety. Wide receiver.
Spring drills, which open Tuesday, likely will go a long way in determining the makeup of Hopson's second edition.
"There should be some fierce competition for starting jobs right now," Hopson said. "Because there's not a lot of positions that are just penciled in, 'Oh, he's a two-year starter, or he's a three-year starter.' If there's a theme for the spring, I'd say there's a lot of competition and who's the guy who's going to be the starter there?"
A few spots seem locked down.
Ito Smith returns for his senior season after one of the most productive years by a running back in USM history. Smith rushed for 1,459 yards (third-most, single season) and 17 touchdowns (second-most, single season). Including receptions, Smith accounted for 1,918 yards and 19 TDs out of the backfield.
While Smith and fellow senior George Payne are a solid 1-2 at running back, and starting tight end Julian Allen returns for his final season, the rest of the offense will be a work in progress.
That starts at the quarterback, where USM must replace its four-year starter and record-setting leader, Nick Mullens.
With Parker Adamson deciding not to return for his senior season, sophomore Keon Howard and red-shirt junior Kwadra Griggs will duel for the starting role.
Howard had his red-shirt removed in 2016 after late-season injuries to Mullens and Adamson left the Golden Eagles lean at quarterback options. While flashing potential in two starts, the former Laurel High School standout also was as wildly inconsistent and erratic as one might expect of a youngster thrown into the fray for the first time on short notice.
Griggs, a former Itawamba Community College standout who had emerged out of the 2016 spring as Mullens' backup, never saw the field because of academic woes and then injury.
"Obviously, that's going to be an area to watch," Hopson said. "We're going to have a quarterback competition."
The offensive line lost five players with starting experience, returning only tackle Ty Pollard and guard Devin Farrior. Hopson said he was looking forward to seeing how well backups Drake Dorbeck and Tyler Stutzman, redshirt freshmen Cru Birdyshaw, Arvin Fletcher and Wyatt Richtofen, early junior college transfer Justus Satterfield and early graduate Woodlyson Alcius can step into the mix under first-year offensive line coach Erik Losey.
Record-setting Allenzae Staggers leads a receiving corps that lost just one, primary component (senior D.J. Thompson).
But the position has been divvied up between former tight ends coach Desmond Lindsey (outside receivers) and newcomer Scotty Walden (inside receivers/tight ends), and newcomers like early JuCo transfer Trevor Terry and red-shirt freshmen Quez Watkins and T.J. McGinnis will compete with returnees Isaiah Jones, Korey Robertson, Chase Whitehead, Tyre'oune Holmes and Jordan Mitchell for playing time.
"We're dividing that up some, and these days, that's probably the best way to structure that," Hopson said. "The way college football is going today, that setup probably marries better."
On defense, Hopson said the Golden Eagles have added some bigger bodies in the interior with the return of Draper Riley from injury to join LaDarius Harris, early JuCo signee Delmond Landry and bulked-up returnees, senior Rod Crayton and red-shirt freshman DeMarrio Smith.
"When we lost Draper, we were pretty thin," Hopson said. "I mean, we were 235 pounds across the board. But now, we're getting Draper back to go with LaDarius. We brought in Delmond. DeMarrio's going to be a good player. At least, we're getting some 270-pound to 310-pounders in there."
While USM returns its top three corners in Trae Collins, Curtis Mikell and Cornell Armstrong, USM lost four of its top six safeties, with Picasso Nelson Jr. returning as the starting nickel. That will open opportunities for senior-to-be Tarvarius Moore and others.
The defense also lost its starting linebackers in C.J. Perry and Elijah Parker, leaving the position in a battle between junior Jeremy Sangster, sophomore Isaiah Spencer, red-shirt senior Evan Osborne and red-shirt freshman Racheem Boothe.
The Golden Eagles are scheduled to practice three times a week before capping the spring workouts with the Black and Gold Game on April 22.
About The WDAM 7 Gametime App:
The WDAM 7 Gametime app is bringing you the latest on Pine Belt sports.
The app features up to the minute scores for games, video highlights from local games, in-depth interviews with coaches, and updated schedules for your convenience.
Interact with us by sending us your pictures from local games or by joining us in conversation on social media.
You can also get the latest on Southern Miss football, Mississippi sports, SEC, NFL, and Saints coverage.
Download now, it is Gametime in South Mississippi!
Apple users can download The WDAM 7 Gametime app here.
Android users can download The WDAM 7 Gametime app here.