The University of Southern Mississippi’s season-opening football game with the University of Kentucky appears to have resolved any mystery about the Golden Eagles’ starting quarterback saga.
USM coach Jay Hopson said Monday that redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs would be behind center at 6 p.m. when Saturday when the Golden Eagles welcome Southern University to M.M. Roberts Stadium.
“We’re probably going to start with Kwadra,” Hopson said during his weekly news conference.
Griggs and sophomore Keon Howard had spent the spring and summer competing to replace departed four-year starter Nick Mullen.
Howard got the starting nod against Kentucky and played all but the last snap of the first half that ended with the Wildcats ahead 14-3. Howard completed 7 of 14 passes for 87 yards, including a 47-yard completion to redshirt freshman Quez Watkins.
Griggs played the entire second half, hitting 15 of 26 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns as USM (0-1) dropped a hard-fought, physical 24-17 decision to Kentucky.
Neither quarterback was intercepted though each lost a fumble that either to or directly resulted in 14 Wildcat points.
Hopson said Griggs earned the nod to take the offensive reins against the Jaguars (1-0), who defeated South Carolina State University 14-8 Sunday.
“We’re going let both of them compete, but (Griggs) probably earned that,” Hopson said. “Both quarterbacks played a half, and he really had an outstanding half. I think Keon did some great things, too.
“But we’ll just let them compete. That’s all I know. Competition is what this whole world is all about. At the end of the day, we’re just going to let them compete and Keon will be ready when his opportunity comes.”
Hopson complimented Griggs on improving in the technical aspects of the offense while blending that with his instincts for the game.
“He did a great job running our offense and getting the ball to the right people,” Hopson said. “Kwadra is one of those kids who have a great natural feel. He really does. He threw the ball well and he did a great job of running the ball, directing our team. The biggest thing is that we were a little bit more consistent on our reads.
“Football is a journey. We’re going to evaluate things week to week, but I think that he’s a young man who earned the opportunity to get to start this week, so we’re going to give it to him.”
Players of the week for the Kentucky game included red-shirt junior receiver Korey Roberston (offense) and senior safety Tavarius Moore and redshirt senior defensive lineman Rod Crayton (defense)
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Robertson who turned in the first 100-yard game of his career with a personal best 111 yards on seven catches, including touchdown receptions of 42 yards and 26 yards.
It was the first, multi-touchdown game of his career. With Watkins grabbing four passes for 103 yards, the duo became the first pair of Golden Eagles’ receivers to reach 100 yards in the same game since Allenzae Staggers (292 yards) and Julian Allen (103 yards) turned the trick against Rice on Oct. 1, 2016.
In his first career start, the 6-1, 193-pound Moore collected a team-high eight tackles (five solo) and recovered a fumble at USM’s 5-yard line to stop a Kentucky threat in the first quarter. It marked the first time Moore had led the defense in tackles.
The 6-foot, 284-pound Crayton made five tackles (two solo), including 1.5 tackles for loss and forced the fumble by Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. that Moore recovered. Crayton came into the game with just one tackles for loss in his previous three years on the field.
“(Crayton) played one heckuva of a football game,” Hopson said. “Rod played tremendously up front. I thought our front played well and Rod certainly had the best game. Just impressive to watch him play. He played tough football.”
Senior left tackle Drake Dorbeck cracked a bone in his forearm and is expected to be sidelined for the next three to four weeks.
True freshman Paul Gainer replaced Dorbeck against the Wildcats, and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said the Gautier High School product acquitted himself well.
“In my mind, it’s, ‘Next man up,’” Dawson said. “Everybody out there is of the same importance, and that’s why you get guys ready to plug in.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t even notice Paul out there a whole lot, which is a testament to him. He went in and fought hard against some of the better pass rushers that he’s probably going to see on the edge right there and he held his own, which is a testament to him, going in that game and playing well.”
Dorbeck’s injury will result in a bit of shuffling along the offensive front, with Gainer returning to reserve role at left tackle.
According to Monday’s revised depth chart, senior Jerry Harris, who started at right guard against Kentucky, will move to left tackle, while junior college transfer Jimmie Terry will start in Harris’ spot.
Redshirt freshman Arvin Fletcher (left guard), senior Devin Fletcher (center) and sophomore Ty Pollard (right tackle) are scheduled to make their second starts of the season at their respective positions.
The depth chart has true freshman Woodlyson Alcius backing Pollard at right tackle, redshirt senior Tyler Stutzman behind Farrior at center and true freshman Hayden Sturdevant backing up both guard positions.
Hopson said the Golden Eagles otherwise came out of the game relatively clean.
“We’re pretty healthy,” Hopson said. “One or two that re banged up, but other than that we’re pretty good.”
Three Golden Eagles, redshirt senior cornerback Trae Collins, senior safety Picasso Nelson Jr. and redshirt junior running back Tez Parks were sidelined by injury for the Kentucky game.
“Hopefully, we get (Collins and Nelson) back this week,” Hopson said. “We had a few injuries leading in, and, hopefully, we get these guys back and ready to go.
“It is part of football, though. You get guys injured and you just have to get the next guys ready to go. Hopefully, we heal up and not have any season-ending deals.”
Come one, come all
One of the themes of the preseason camp was the depth that USM had established at many positions, and Saturday certainly provided evidence.
Dawson said 10 receivers saw playing time with the offense, including six “outside” receivers and four “inside” receivers.
USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said 22 players saw snaps on defense, including 11 defensive linemen, four linebackers and seven defensive backs.
“We’ve talked about our depth, so why not take advantage of that?” Pecoraro said. “I think it’s good. The more people you play, the fresher you are and the more you are in there, you better get to the ball.”