Junior Derrick Nix is your father's running back. Until now he has restricted all his ducking and weaving to hunting and spinner bait; as a runner, he's as north-south as the prime meridian. The Baby Bull introduced Conference USA to his power running style two years ago, when as a true freshman he rushed for 1,180 yards. His 1,054 yards last season made him the Golden Eagles' first back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher since Ben Garry in 1977, and he's hankering to bulldoze a few more defenders and repeat the feat this season.
This off-season, however, Nix has been working with first-year running backs coach Shelton Gandy on improving his lateral quickness and allowing blocks to develop before he plows into the line. "I need to learn to avoid contact sometimes," Nix says. Why change? The same question was asked of Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower after he axed his entire offensive coaching staff following a season in which the Golden Eagles went 6-0 in conference and 9-3 overall, losing only at Nebraska, Alabama and Texas A&M. Bower points to an imbalance between a defense that ranked eighth nationally and an offense that was increasingly predictable and unproductive with its run-two-downs-and-throw-on-third-down pattern.
Enter Nevada coordinator Chris Klenakis, whose offenses in Reno finished among the top five nationally each of the past four seasons. Klenakis will have the Eagles using a high-energy, quick-passing attack, with more play-action sets and quarterback movement. Unlike the last two seasons, several passing plays will feature Nix as the first option, challenging him to become, like his team, a more complex offensive machine.