For the second consecutive year, the University of Southern Mississippi will open its football season with the University of Kentucky.
While many of the same players for both teams will be along the sidelines and on Carlisle-Faulkner Field at M.M. Roberts Stadium at 3 p.m. Saturday, much has changed since the Golden Eagles rallied for a 44-35 in Lexington, Ky., in the 2016 season opener.
Both teams will not face the same quarterback they saw last season.
Through Friday, the Golden Eagles still officially had not named the heir to four-year starter Nick Mullens.
Sophomore Keon Howard and redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs have competed for the first-team slot since spring practice, with true freshman Marcelo Rodriguez entering the fray this summer.
Of the trio, only Howard has game experience, starting twice late in the 2016 season and appearing for a handful of special package snaps in the final two games when both Mullens and back-up Parker Adamson went down with injuries.
Howard completed 22 of 50 passes for 365 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more scores. But he also lost five fumbles and threw four interceptions.
USM coach Jay Hopson said earlier this week he could see both Griggs and Howard playing Saturday.
“Yeah, I think they’re both going to play,” Hopson said. “I do.”
USM will be seeing Kentucky starter, senior Stephen Anderson II, for the first time, even though Anderson was a big factor in the Wildcats’ turnaround from a 0-2 start to a 7-6 finish and a bowl trip.
Anderson replaced injured starter Drew Barker and completed 145 of 265 passes for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also ran for 327 yards and three touchdowns.
The Wildcats’ running game will feature sophomore Benny Snell Jr., who did not play against the Golden Eagles last year. Snell, who went on to earn Southeastern Conference All-Freshman honors, set Kentucky freshman rushing records with 1,091 yards and 13 total touchdowns.
Kentucky does return senior starting receiver Garrett Johnson, though fellow 1,000-yard career receiver Dorian Baker injured his left ankle in a preseason scrimmage and is expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2017 season.
Johnson had six catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns against USM last season.
USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said Kentucky shifted gears toward the ground game after Johnson and Snell emerged.
“They definitely changed their personality, became a lot more heavily run-based as the year progressed,” Pecoraro said. “You lose your starting quarterback, and have a great stable of running backs, so you go with your strengths.”
The Golden Eagles return senior running back Ito Smith, who turned in the third-most rushing yards in a single season in 2016, with 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns. He caught 43 passes for another 459 yards and two more touchdowns.
Against Kentucky in 2016, Smith rushed for 173 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for another 40 yards.
A deep receiving corps that lost only one of the top eight pass catchers from 2016 features senior Allenzae Staggers, who became just the fifth Golden Eagle to reach 1,000 yards in a season (1,165 yards) and senior Isaiah Jones, who had three catches for 93 yards and a score against Kentucky.
Even though the two teams met just a September ago, USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said the first game of any season is filled with unknowns.
“They’ve had a whole offseason, too, so I’m sure they’re going to have some wrinkles, just like everybody else,” Dawson said. “I don’t know how much, schematically, they’ll change from last year. Last year, they were somewhat consistent, but, week to week, they did do some different stuff.
“When you go into game one of the season, there’s going to be some adjustments. It’s just the way it is. They may even have packages that we don’t even know about and they probably will, knowing Coach (Mark) Stoops.”