Originally written for A Sea of Blue:
Jason Munz (@munzly) is the Golden Eagles beat writer for the Hattiesburg American, a local newspaper covering football for the University of Southern Mississippi. I had an opportunity to chat with Jason about the season opener at Kentucky, which is transcribed as a Q&A format below.
I recorded the full interview and posted it to Soundcloud, which you also will find below. Bonus material in the audio includes conversation about Brett Favre, the second greatest Southern Miss athlete of all time (according to Munz); the new locker room facilities at Southern Miss; and the Netflix original series, Last Chance U, as a pair of transfer wide receivers from East Mississippi Community College will make their debut starts for the Golden Eagles Saturday against Kentucky.
Looking at the season opener, what’s been the overall buzz from the local fan base around this new coaching staff?
I think people are excited. It’s Jay Hopson’s first year as head coach at Southern Miss, but he was here as an assistant coach on two different occasions for a total of six years, most recently as a defensive coordinator for three seasons before he moved on to a couple other places. So he’s a homegrown guy with a lot of connections to this area and this fan base. I think a lot of people are very excited about him and the staff he’s put together.
Do you expect there will be any kinks to work out with the new coaches or any sort of learning curve for the Golden Eagles to overcome in order to beat Kentucky?
I’m sure there will be; you’re talking about a group of guys in the staff that have never actually worked together as sort of one big conglomerate, so I’m sure there will be a few growing pains. But the fact that Southern Miss has so many returning veterans and experience on the field, I expect that to ease those pains a little bit.
Obviously, you’ve got Nick Mullens the big-name quarterback, Ito Smith at running back, and then D.J. Thompson at receiver…those are definitely the guys Kentucky fans have been hearing the most about…But give me one or two newcomers or underclassmen on offense that you expect to make a name for themselves, either over the course of the season, or maybe even in the opening game against the ‘Cats.
Those are definitely the usual suspects on offense. Then when you look at the offensive line you can certainly point out senior Cameron Tom, a center who’s been on the watch list for the Remington Award for the past two seasons, an all-conference performer the last three seasons, so he’s a guy that they really need to help the offense perform well as a whole.
Besides him, you’re looking at potentially George Pain, who’s Ito Smith’s backup. He missed last season with an injury, but before that, he was a second or third string running back that scored four or five touchdowns as a true sophomore, so they’re expecting big things out of him.
There are several newcomers at the wide receiver spot; especially Isaiah Jones and Allenzae Staggers. Jones was actually a Florida State signee at one time, so I think he played in a few games a couple of years back for the Seminoles. But then he decided to go the Junior College route and ended up at Southern Miss.
Both receivers (Jones and Staggers) transferred from East Mississippi Community College, with the show, Last Chance U?
Have you gotten to see any of that?
I have; it was really good. The level of access that crew got was pretty incredible. It was raw, it was gritty, and it didn’t necessarily do much to help the stereotype that people have about college football players, but it was neat to see for people like us.
Do you think you could play for Coach Buddy Stephens? Or even just work for him?
Yeah, I’ve haven’t really crossed paths with him in depth, just in passing a time or two, but he certainly ate up that spotlight in the show.
Did his name ever come up as a potential replacement candidate at all at USM when Coach Monken left?
No, it didn’t. I think he’s very comfortable where he is. You might have had some fans throw it around a little bit, but nothing serious.
Alright, Shannon Dawson. Give me your overall impression of him as an offensive coordinator.
From what I’ve seen, it’s not much different system-wise or scheme-wise from what Southern Miss has run the last three years. They were a balanced spread team, so when you have a quarterback throw for 4,500 yards and two running backs rush for more than a thousand yards, that’s pretty balanced.
I think there will be elements of the air raid system that Dawson kind of made a name for himself with there before he got to Kentucky. So I think there will be some wrinkles of that, but I think more so it will be that balanced spread offense. It’ll be interesting to see how the offense changes after this year when the sort-of “old guard” finishes out and Mullens and Thompson graduate, but I still expect to be pretty close to the same.
The impression I’ve gotten from him here is that he’s a pretty straightforward guy, and he doesn’t pull many punches.
I think we’re in agreement that, Dawson or no Dawson, Southern Miss will probably put up some big numbers against Kentucky’s inexperienced defense, especially in the front seven…But is there any offensive position for Southern Miss that you’re concerned with?
I think it has to be both tackle spots; left and right tackle. They graduated multi-year starters at right and left tackle. So at starting right tackle you have a redshirt freshman, Ty Pollard, who actually had an offer from Kentucky and visited Kentucky, so it’ll be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out.
Then all signs are pointing toward Will Freeman at left tackle, a redshirt senior that came here as a defensive end then moved to defensive tackle and never was able to really beef up to take that abuse play after play on defense. Then all of the sudden, he gets hurt first game of the 2015 season and then ballooned up to 295 lbs., that was where he was when the summer started.
But again, he’s a guy who has never played the offensive side of the ball in college football so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles it. He’s a smart guy and a lot of defensive experience but never playing on the o-line, there could be some issues there.
Moving to the other side, Kentucky’s offense returns nine starters, with our proven talent being at running back. Do you get the impression that the Southern Miss defense might try and pack it in early and force Drew Barker to prove himself by making him throw it around?
I think so, and they haven’t told me anything about this, but it sounds like the obvious move to most people. I’d say they’ll really try to jam up the running backs, Jojo Kemp and Boom Williams, and key on them. And then I’d say they’ll just try to guess in certain situations when Kentucky decides to throw the ball and then try to force some turnovers.
Give me a couple of the Southern Miss defensive guys that Kentucky fans need to be on the lookout for.
I’d keep an eye on defensive lineman Dylan Bradley, he’s a fourth-year defensive starter, and an all-conference guy. At linebacker, you’re looking at Elijah Parker, a three-year starter who’s nothing flashy, but he has a nose for finding the ball.
On the back end, you’re looking at De’Narius Antoine, who was an all-conference guy in his first season last year, who is really special. He’s incredibly athletic, a hard-hitter, and another one with a nose for the ball. He plays with a high level of energy and intensity, and he’s overall just a pretty intense guy out there.
And then what worries you the most on defense, where is the biggest potential hole?
I think probably just the overall undersized nature of the defensive line. They have some good pieces there, some athletic guys who have played a lot of snaps, but they’re just a little undersized there. There aren’t any 300 to 310-pound run-stoppers there in the middle. So they’ll have to get a little creative, especially going against a run game that’s as skilled as Kentucky’s.
Alright, let’s go to your overall prediction against Kentucky, and then, also I’m curious as to the rest of the season for the Golden Eagles?
The more and more I hear about Kentucky’s issues on defense; I think it’s going to be a back and forth, shootout-style situation, at least for the first 2.5-3 quarters. But I think eventually, the veteran leadership on offense will be able to wear down that depth-trap for Kentucky on defense in the front seven.
I think it’ll be close, but after the way Southern Miss ended their 2015 season losing to Western Kentucky in the conference championship and to Washington in the Dallas Bowl, I think the guys that are back – the veterans – are anxious to put their stamp on things and get the win.
Finally, give me your pitch for Hattiesburg as a tourist destination for Kentucky Football fans next year.
It’s a really fun place to hang out for a weekend. It already was a good tailgating scene, and they’ve actually improved it quite a bit. There was a spot on campus when I was a student called ‘The District’ that was the main area. But now they’ve added a second spot called ‘Spirit Park,’ which has really become a solid tailgating scene when you put those two together. Then, as far as the city’s concerned, there are plenty of good night spots and plenty of good eating down here there’s no doubt about it.