HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - It’s hard to say Tim Jones flew “under-the-radar” when he caught a team-best 73 balls for 902 yards last season.
It was easy to point to Quez Watkins on any given Saturday as the future Philadelphia Eagle led Conference USA with 1,178 yards receiving in 2019.
Yet, Jones proved to be USM’s quiet, consistent wideout.
“I call him the silent assassin,” said USM receivers coach Scotty Walden. “He just silently does the right thing at the right time every day. And he’s done it since he’s been a freshman.
“I think his future is as bright as any receiver we’ve ever had here…When there’s a kid that type of talent-level and he does things the right way every day, as a coach you fall in love with that kid. He’s the epitome of Southern Miss.”
The Biletnikoff Award recognized Jones’ talent by naming him to its Preseason Watch List, along with 54 other players. The award is given each year to college football’s most outstanding receiver.
The senior enters his senior season 469 receiving yards shy of USM’s 2,000-yard club.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvement from him and it’s kind of hard to improve because he had such a good year last year,” said USM senior quarterback Jack Abraham. “He’s always been my go-to guy. He’s a really good guy to throw it to and makes my life a lot easier.”
The Abraham-to-Jones connection continued in the Golden Eagles’ second scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday. Abraham hit Jones for a 99-yard touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage.
USM’s signal-caller finished with 229 yards passing on 10-of-20 completions, according to the school’s unofficial statistics.
Abraham may have found a viable second option in East Mississippi Community College transfer Jason Brownlee. The West Point High School graduate hauled in two passes on Saturday, including a 45-yard catch.
Brownlee grabbed 75 balls for 1,055 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Lions last season.
“[Brownlee]‘s big and that’s the biggest thing that makes him tough to guard,” said USM junior defensive back Natrone Brooks. “He’s like 6 (feet), 5 (inches), has like a 7-foot wingspan and can jump out of the world. All jump balls, you got to fight every time. He’s physical, has good routes. He’s a good receiver.”
New-look defensive backfield
Brooks is one of seven transfers to join USM’s defensive backfield this season. Seniors Tyler Barnes and Rachuan Mitchell return with the most experience.
It’s a unit that’s been overhauled on the field and on the sideline with the addition of defensive backs coach Cedric Thomas. The Cleveland native comes to Hattiesburg after two seasons as head coach of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
It’s a reunion of sorts as Thomas coached alongside Jay Hopson and Tony Pecoraro for four seasons at Alcorn State (2012-15).
“[Hopson]’s family,” Thomas said. “He’s like my coaching dad. He took me out the junior college ranks and taught me a lot – not only just the X’s and O’s, but how to treat young men.”
Said Brooks: “[Thomas] is a player’s coach. He’s not a coach that doesn’t want to listen to what the players have to say. He wants to hear your side and hear everything you’ve got to say. Going to coach you up and tell you what’s right about that, what’s wrong about that.”
In a room with so many new faces, communication is critical. Thomas expects all of his defensive backs to know how to play nickel, safety, rover or free safety.
“The more you can do, the better you can be,” Thomas said. “And the good thing is I have all of them in the room, so when you’re teaching them one concept, they’re all learning. You gotta always plug and play and different guys gotta have different skill sets.”
Mitchell said it’s just a matter of getting to know the guy beside you.
“It’s just learning to play with each other, that team chemistry,” Mitchell said. “They’re new guys, so we all just have to come together, learn how to play with each other.”
Gameday’s ’gonna look different’
Governor Tate Reeves’ executive order to limit college stadiums’ capacity to 25 percent this fall cemented what we already knew - it’s not going to be your typical football season.
USM athletic director Jeremy McClain and his team have been mapping out how to seat roughly 9,000 folks at “The Rock.”
McClain said season-ticket holders receive priority on tickets, followed by players’ families and students.
The gameday atmosphere in Hattiesburg will not only feel strange for fans this fall, but for players and coaches, too.
“When you come out and you hear the fans cheering, that kind of gives you an extra boost because you want to do it for the fans,” Brooks said. “Now, you just gotta do it because you love the game of football.”
Hopson said USM just will have to deal with circumstances as they are.
“All that matters is what happens between the white lines,” Hopson said. “If you’re a competitor, you have to love just the opportunity to compete…I think we’ll have a 25 percent capacity of enthusiastic Golden Eagle fans and certainly our players and coaches will appreciate that.”
There will be no manufactured motivation on Sept. 3.
The Golden Eagles’ season-opener against the University of South Alabama just happens to be the first Football Bowl Subdivision game of the 2020 campaign.
“For us, that’s kind of a neat deal,” Hopson said. “There might be quite a few people watching that for sure. Our guys are excited about that.”
Abraham said the Golden Eagles just want to play ball.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity for us to go out there and showcase what we’ve been working on and the talent we’ve got on this team,” Abraham said.