HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - On a wet Saturday night in September 2016, Xavier Thigpen feasted. A season-high four tackles-for-loss against Troy, the most by a Golden Eagle since Cleveland Brown Jamie Collins recorded the same in 2012.
Thigpen has continued his tenacious play through three games of 2017: Nine tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery to the end zone so far.
This season will be the last ride for "PawPaw" Thigpen. The senior defensive end entered his final season of college football after recording the second most tackles for loss at USM in 2016. Thigpen's 12.5 was just behind current Minnesota Viking Dylan Bradley (15.5).
When Bradley moved on to the NFL, all eyes turned toward Thigpen to lead the USM defensive front.
"We had a lot of young guys trickling in last season and playing," Thigpen said. "Yeah, Dylan Bradley's a big loss but we have a lot of experience that's coming in. We got Delmond [Landry], Draper [Riley], Rod Crayton. We got a lot of guys playing good football right now. Every game we fight to the end, offensively, defensively, special teams. We just find a way to keep fighting 'til the end."
The fight's resulted in a 2-1 start, as USM prepares to open Conference USA play against North Texas on Saturday. The Golden Eagles have held their opponents to less than 250 yards of total offense per game and a 6-for-41 conversion rate on third down.
Much of the "Nasty Bunch" defense's success has to do with the "Bald-headed Bandits," the title Thigpen brought back to the defensive line. It's the same nickname Tigpen's cousin Dasman McCullum and company claimed back in 2013.
"Before camp I just tried to get as many defensive guys to shave their head," Thigpen said. "As part of a "nasty" cut. There's really no particular reason behind it, just a way to bond together. And just come out, have energy at practice, make jokes with it."
Of course, Thigpen has a unique nickname himself. Everybody between his hometown of Hebron to Hattiesburg knows him as "PawPaw," a name he earned back at West Jones High School.
"That came from my high school basketball coach," Thigpen said. "When I got moved up, he gave me that name like in the eighth grade. And it just stuck with me throughout middle school and high school."
Thigpen developed from a skinny kid out of West Jones to a badgering, 6-foot-5, 240-pound defensive lineman at Southern Miss.
However, the nickname "PawPaw" and the pride Thigpen brings his family have remained constant throughout the entire journey.
"Just being close to my family, I'm a big family person," Thigpen said. "I can go home any time. Like right after practice, I can just shoot home. Family was always at the game, whether I was playing or not. My redshirt year there were at every game. It's just a blessing to be close to home and a blessing for my family to support me the way they do."