Linebacker Michael Boley should be a cult hero in Hattiesburg this fall. Boley, who could have opted to enter the NFL Draft after a decorated junior season, decided to return and limit Southern Miss' defensive losses.
That's good news for the Golden Eagles. The defending Conference USA champions find themselves with seven new defensive starters, but Boley gives the unit an anchor.
Southern Miss hasn't faced such a major rebuilding project on defense since 2001. How well defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix can mold his new group likely will determine if the Golden Eagles can repeat.
Southern Miss won its first C-USA title since 1999 relying mostly on its defense. Offensively, the Golden Eagles struggled at times under first-year offensive coordinator Rip Scherer, but should regroup behind nine returning starters, including quarterback Dustin Almond.
OffenseOnly one Conference USA team that finished with a winning record put up fewer points than the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss averaged 22.5 points per game, ahead of only UAB, East Carolina and Army.
But Scherer has his quarterback situation settled with junior Dustin Almond and an improving situation at running back with veteran Anthony Harris and several promising newcomers.
"We are so much farther ahead offensively than we were a year ago," Bower said. "Last year it was a new offense and a new staff. It's a night and day difference this year."
Almond took over at midseason and contributed to a second-half run that earned Southern Miss the C-USA title and a berth in the Liberty Bowl. Almond passed for 1,877 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Harris rushed for 671 yards on a 4.2-yard average.
While Bower admits the Golden Eagles are thin at wide receiver, there is experience among the starters, led by senior Marvin Young. Young uses his strength to make yards after the catch, while senior DaRon Lawrence makes the difficult catches over the middle.
DefenseBoley should be a preseason All-America candidate. He had 22.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks and uses his speed, instincts and athleticism to routinely record double-digit tackle totals.
In the spring, Nix had to find new starters at each position in the secondary. He added several players from the offense, worked in two mid-semester junior college transfers and welcomed a highly regarded redshirt freshman -- Robert Henderson -- to the defensive line.
SpecialistsTwo nationally ranked return men are back, along with kicker Darren McCaleb, a freshman All-American last year.
Returning kickoffs will be Eubanks, who finished fourth nationally with a 29.4 average and had a 94-yard touchdown against Cincinnati. Returning punts will be Marvin Young, who ranked 10th nationally with a 13.6 average and had an 87-yard punt return against Memphis.
McCaleb was 14-of-17 on field goals, including 11-of-12 inside the 40. Punter Luke Johnson, a junior, also is back after averaging 42.1 yards on a conference-high 79 kicks.
Final AnalysisBesides not getting too banged up by a non-conference schedule that features a home game against California and trips to Nebraska and Alabama, USM must successfully replace seven defensive starters. It's an enormous overhaul for Nix, but there always seems to be enough talent on hand for the Golden Eagles to recover. Henderson could be the key to the defensive line's success, and the secondary has a budding first-team all-conference performer in Trevis Coley.
Offensively, the Golden Eagles have a more settled situation at quarterback with Almond back and potential standouts at running back in incoming freshmen C.J. Barrows and Cole Mason.