Photo courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Golden Eagles soared to new heights during their Conference USA Championship run in 2011 as they managed to submit the first 10-win season for the program since 1988.
Coach Larry Fedora's final year at the helm of the Southern Miss program got off to a slow start, as the Golden Eagles barely got by Louisiana Tech (19-17) in their opener before losing to Marshall (26-20) on the road.
USM then put together an impressive streak of wins that put it in great position. The team defeated SE Louisiana (52-6), Virginia (30-24). and Navy (63-35) to remain undefeated in non-conference action. The Golden Eagles' eight-game winning streak consisted of double-digit victories over Rice (48-24), SMU (27-3), Texas-El Paso (31-13), and East Carolina (48-28). USM also took down UCF (30-29) in a hard fought contest before being handed its second loss and having its winning streak snapped by UAB (34-31).
The Golden Eagles managed to clinch first place in the C-USA's East Division and bounce back with a lopsided victory over Memphis (44-7) that ended their regular season schedule.
USM disregarded its underdog label in the Conference USA Championship game versus Chase Keenum and the undefeated, seemingly BCS bound Houston Cougars. The Golden Eagles downed the Cougars, 49-28, to claim the conference title. Southern Miss put an exclamation point on its marvelous season with a 24-17 victory over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl.
Fedora's success landed him the head coaching position at North Carolina. Ellis Johnson, who served as USM's defensive coordinator from 1988-1989, was given the reins of the program and his first collegiate head coaching position after 36 years of waiting. Johnson most recently served as the assistant head coach of South Carolina under Steve Spurrier.
OFFENSE: USM's dynamic offense from last season is going to be difficult to duplicate. The Golden Eagles finished 14th in the NCAA in scoring (36.9 ppg) and 17th in total offense (461.4 yards per game) during their title run.
Johnson and his new staff will have to replace some key components of that unit, which may lead to a drop off in production. Louisiana's former head coach Ricky Bustle took over the offensive coordinator position. It has been some time since there has been a quarterback controversy at USM, but the departure of four-year starter Austin Davis leaves a glaring hole. Junior Chris Campbell is the leading candidate to step in. Redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd will get a shot if Campbell fails to get it done.
"Offensively, we're going to have to figure out who we are. We're working on things now that are not our complexion and we're going to have to tweak it and adapt to what we have." said Johnson about his new offensive unit.
The good news for Campbell is that he will have an array of weapons that should make it easier for him to spread the ball around the field. The undersized and speedy Tracy Lampley (5-9, 168) is a big play threat as dual-threat runner and slot receiver. Junior WR Dominique Sullivan is the top returner with 32 catches for 461 yards and two TDs. Senior Quentin Pierce will get a shot this season with the departures of Kevin Bolden and Ryan Balentine.
The rushing attack revolves around the trio of Desmond Johnson, Jeremy Hester, and Kendrick Hardy. All three backs bring different running styles to the table which gives USM versatility at the position.
The offensive line should be reliable with three returning starters in Joe Duhon (6-2, 292), Austin Quattrochi (6-3, 292), and Darius Barnes (6-4, 329).
DEFENSE: The Golden Eagles were just as strong on the defensive side of the ball in 2011 with the 26th-best scoring defense (20.8 ppg) and 29th-best total defense (343.0 yards per game) in the nation. Former Clemson and Memphis head coach Tommy West takes over the defense that lost most of its starters from the front seven and two in the secondary. Sophomore Rakeem Nunez-Roches (6-3, 312) will be a big factor to the defense's success in his first year as the team's starting nose tackle. Dasman McCullum (6-3, 238) and Jamie Collins (6-5, 239) are the best pass rushers heading into the season.
The linebacking corps was depleted by graduation. Junior Alan Howze is the most experienced returner at the position. Dylan Reda and Jerrion Johnson will both play vital roles in replenishing the lineup. Deron Wilson and Jacorius Cotton both return to the starting secondary. Alexander Wilson (cornerback) and Alex Smith (safety) both move into starting roles after serving as understudies at their respective positions in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Tracey Lampley's productivity also extends to the return game. The Golden Eagles' star was chosen to the All-C-USA first-team as a punt returner in 2011 after averaging 11.5 yards on 31 returns with a TD. He also handled most kickoff returns. Peter Boehme will be back for his senior year after contributing an average of 43 yards per punt in 2011. Sophomore Corey Acosta is the starting placekicker. Acosta is dependable and accurate but struggles from distance.
OUTLOOK: The Golden Eagles are coming off their first league title since 2003. USM had a much deeper and more experienced roster last season. A repeat as league champions is not likely, but not out of the question. A treacherous non- conference slate will make reaching the 11-win mark again nearly impossible.
"Im not a big goals guy. I don't believe in putting a list of goals that our football team has to reach," said Johnson. " Like Coach (Steve) Spurrier always said, `If you're going to play in a conference, the first thing you're supposed to do is win the conference.' And that's what we need to be worried about.
Johnson's team faces a challenge in its opener when it takes on Nebraska on the road on September 1. USM also has rendezvous with Louisville and Boise State scheduled this season.
The Golden Eagles' conference season gives them a chance of avenging their in- league losses to Marshall (Oct. 20) and UAB (Nov. 3) at home. Their toughest tests will be road games versus UCF (Oct. 13) and SMU (Nov. 10).
USM has produced 18 consecutive winning seasons, but the new staff will need to have a real command of the program right away to keep that streak alive. The defensive unit only has one projected senior starter while the offense lacks a quarterback with any reasonable game experienced. However, USM's athleticism and physicality will keep the program competitive all season long.