For the better of the spring and summer, University of Southern Mississippi’s football coaches insisted that youth would be served during the 2107 season.
They weren’t kidding.
According to the participation list from Saturday’s 45-0 victory over Southern University, 20 freshmen or redshirt freshmen appeared against the Jaguars.
Two, redshirt freshman Arvin Fletcher and redshirt freshman Racheem Boothe, have started USM’s first two games, at left guard and strong-side linebacker, respectively. True freshman Briggs Bourgeois serves as the Golden Eagles’ kickoff specialist, and he and redshirt freshman Zac Everett have each handled punting duties, though Everett was the lone punter against the Jaguars.
When the Golden Eagles (1-1) paying a first-ever football visit to Monore, La., at 6 p.m. Saturday to take on the University of Louisiana-Monroe (0-1), six more young players will be sprinkled among USM’s two-deep depth chart, including freshmen offensive linemen Woodlyson Alcius (right tackle), Paul Gainer (left tackle) and Hayden Sturdevant (guard), freshman receiver Jaylond Adams, redshirt freshman receiver Quez Watkins and redshirt freshman cornerback Rachaun Mitchell.
“That’s just something we’ll have to do this season,” Hopson said Monday during his weekly news conference. “A lot freshmen are now (in the) two-deep. We’ll play those guys.
“There’s only one to get better and that’s through playing. You don’t get better from watching. Sometimes you have to wait your turn, but it’s good to get those in there and see what they can do. It just helps those new guys.”
Saturday saw the debut of Alcius, Sturdevant, offensive lineman Bryce Foxworth, defensive back Kris Reed and receiver Tim Jones and tight end Ray Ladner. Four other freshmen, Adams, Bourgeois, Gainer and defensive back Tyler Barnes appeared in the season opener against the University of Kentucky.
In addition to Boothe, Everett, Fletcher and Mitchell, redshirt freshmen who have played this season include defensive back Jon Te Demby, running back Andre Hale II, outside linebacker T. J. McGinnis, defensive end and Gavin Greene, offensive lineman Wyatt Richtoffen and defensive lineman Jacques Turner.
Hopson said he especially was glad to see the young O-linemen getting game repetitions.
“It was good to see that second unit get in there and get about a half,” Hopson said. “We’ve got some youngsters there that I think are going to be an outstanding group. A lot of those guys are freshmen, and I thought they did a real good job.”
USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said getting the likes of Mitchell, Reed and Barnes playing time in a veteran secondary will be crucial for the years ahead.
“We have a lot of depth there, but nine of those guys are walking out the door after this season,” Pecoraro said of his senior-laden defensive backfield. “The thing is, you don’t want to have a whole bunch of young guys there next year with no experience, so anytime you can get them experience, whether it be travelling to a hotel, whether it be playing on special teams, whether it be getting them some minutes in some situations like we were able to on Saturday, that’s going to be huge for their growth. That’s the key.”
The Golden Eagles and Warhawks will be meeting for the fifth time, with USM holding a 3-1 edge in the series.
But Saturday’s game will be the first played at Malone Stadium, UL-Monroe’s home turf.
From 1951 to 1973, the school formerly known at Northeast Louisiana State College and then Northeast Louisiana University played under the National Association of Intercollegiate Association umbrella. From 1974 to 1993, the program shifted to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, competing at the I-AA level. In 1994, the program transitioned to I-A status, playing as an independent before joining the Sun Belt Conference.
USM and UL-Monroe first played in the 1982 season opener, a 45-27 victory for the Golden Eagles. The teams met again in 1986 (28-19, USM) and 1987 (34-24, UL-Monroe) before the most recent meeting in 1993 (44-37, USM).
Hopson said he had never faced UL-Monroe as part of a coaching staff but that he was familiar with Malone Stadium, heading to football camp there during his youth in Vicksburg.
“Back in the old days, you had to put full pads on, so it wasn’t like a camp, but like another week of two-a-days in July,” Hopson said. “So, I’ve been there quite a few times, but I think this is the first time that I’ve actually coached there.”
USM’s players of the week for the Southern University game:
Offense - Senior receiver Allenzae Staggers, who caught five passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Defense - Senior cornerback Cornell Armstrong, who had a 46-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Special teams - Senior defensive end Xavier Thigpen, who recovered a fumbled punt snap in the end zone for a touchdown.