HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - For the first time since January, Jay Hopson was actually able to watch his football team compete in shoulder pads and helmets.
Southern Miss held its first scrimmage of summer camp on Saturday morning at the Rock. The Golden Eagles continue to prepare for Sept. 3 season-opener against South Alabama.
Hopson split his group into two units for a 90-minute scrimmage on Carlisle-Faulkner Field. Freshman Frank Gore Jr. led all ball carriers with six rushes for 67 yards, according to USM’s unofficial stats.
Senior Jack Abraham completed eight of his 13 passes with a couple of interceptions, finding transfer tight end Grayson Gunter across the middle for 24 yards.
Junior Zach Portlock stood out defensively with an interception, tackle for loss and sack. Oak Grove grad Hayes Maples and sophomore Freddie Hartz each recovered a fumble.
Newcomer Natrone Brooks and senior Ky’el Hemby each recorded an interception in the defensive backfield.
Hopson said he saw both good and bad from the Golden Eagles, noting that mistakes tend to be amplified during scrimmages compared to practices.
“A lot of big hitting out there, a lot of guys running to the football,” Hopson said. “I was pleased, I really was. It’s the first time we scrimmaged in nine months so offensively, we had some things going at times but there’d be a critical penalty or mistake that would kind of get us behind the chains. I thought defensively it was good because we created some turnovers. Offensively, we didn’t do as good a job as I’d like with ball security.”
Linebacker could be a point of strength for Eagles
A former defensive back with a long history of coaching defense, Hopson often has his eyes toward that side of the football.
He likes what he’s seeing from the linebacking group this summer.
Southern Miss returns experience at that position, led by current team-leader in tackles Racheem Boothe. The Bassfield native’s recorded 176 stops in three seasons.
Swayze Bozeman, Santrell Latham, Hayes Maples and Devin Thomas all return with game experience. USM adds Iowa Western transfer Averie Habas and Gulfport High grad D.Q. Thomas makes the transition from running back to linebacker.
“Linebacker’s a hard position to play, it’s not an easy position,” Hopson said. “Defensively, linebackers are kind of like quarterbacks of our offense. They have to have extreme knowledge of what’s going on.”
“We’re going to fit inside for the run but we’re also going to come off the edge in pass rush,” Habas said. “We’re going to get our drops and we’re going to fly to the ball every time.”
“I feel like we have about six guys that can go and multiple guys that can play multiple positions,” Bozeman said. “We got guys that can change from mike to wolf to stinger and it doesn’t matter ‘cause we all know them the same. So, I’m excited that we all have that depth.”
New OC hopes to revitalize run game
USM’s struggles to run the ball in recent years are no secret.
The Golden Eagles’ rushing attack has ranked 13th in Conference USA the last two years. The 1,527 yards on 434 attempts Southern Miss gained in 2019 was ahead of only 1-11 Old Dominion.
It also ranked 121st of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Southern Miss averaged 117.5 yards per game and 3.5 yards per attempt.
New offensive coordinator Matt Kubik aims to reshape the Eagles’ run game. His offense at Louisiana-Monroe last season ranked No. 26 in the country with an average of 207.3 yards per game.
And Kubik knows USM has the tools. Senior Kevin Perkins returns as the leading rusher while junior Steven Anderson has the most experience in black & gold.
Freshman Dee Baker and juniors Don Ragsdale and Darius Maberry are expected to contribute as well.
“It’s all about just changing an attitude a little bit, a little bit more of a downhill attitude,” Kubik said. “We’re so athletic on the offensive line, a lot of the stretch plays, outside zone plays [sometimes] make sense.”
“That is an interesting room right now,” said junior center Trace Clopton. “All of ‘em just flying all over the place. There’s not a bad option in there.”
“There’s enough food to go around for everyone,” Perkins said. “We’re all going to eat and I feel like we’re really stacked at running back. We have some fast guys, like Dee Baker, Darius Maberry. And then me and Steve and Ragsdale come in with power.”
Hopson shakes up coaching staff
With the addition of Kubik at offensive coordinator and welcoming back of Tony Pecoraro at defensive coordinator, Hopson’s made some maneuvers with his assistant coaches.
Tim Billings has spent the past four seasons on the defensive side of the ball but will coach tight ends in 2020. After coaching cornerbacks last year, Akeem Davis heads the running back room.
For the first time in his 18-year coaching career, Reed Stringer will coach the nickelbacks. He spent the last two seasons coaching tight ends and special teams.
A philosophy Hopson learned from his time with Steve Spurrier at the University of Florida, he feels the change can do nothing but benefit both sides of the football.
“I think it’s been outstanding,” Hopson said. “Coach Billings has coached everything on offense. He coached running backs at Oklahoma, he coached receivers at Wake Forest. He’s such a great coach and a versatile coach, he can coach anywhere on the football field.”
“It’s been a great experience for me,” Stringer said. “Naturally, I see things differently than people who have been defensive coaches their whole careers.”
“It’s been unbelievable,” Kubik said. “Especially with coach Billings in there. You’re talking about the wily vet, he’s been on both sides of the ball. He’s been really helpful to bring in that defensive perspective - here’s what gave us problems the last couple of years.
“[Akeem’s] been able to help us out on the back end, what’s the corner thinking, what’s the safety thinking. He’s such a high-energy guy. So far, those running backs really respond well to his energy and his passion for it.”