Southern Miss Football Gears Up for Spring Practice on Tuesday
Golden Eagles eager to improve on last year's winning season
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- The Southern Miss Football team is back in action on Tuesday for the start of spring camp. The Golden Eagles will get to work three times per week outdoors until the spring game on Saturday, April 22 at 12 p.m. as part of Eagle Fest Weekend.
Fans looking to renew or make first-time season ticket orders can do so by visiting SouthernMissTickets.com or calling 1-800-844-TICK.
Offensive starters returning/lost: 6/5
Top returnees: Julian Allen (TE, R-Sr.), Ito Smith (RB, Sr.), Allenzae Staggers (WR, Sr.)
Defensive starters returning/lost: 6/5
Top returnees: Cornell Armstrong (CB, Sr.), Curtis Mikell (CB, Sr.), Xavier Thigpen (DE, Sr.)
The most obvious departure on offense will be Nick Mullens, who last fall set school records for career touchdowns, completions and attempts. His backfield partner, Ito Smith, put on a show from start to finish in 2016 and will be a strong candidate for Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2017. He built off his successful sophomore campaign with a 36-carry, 173-yard game at Kentucky, the first of four consecutive 100-plus yard outings and eight for the year (most in C-USA). Smith returned to his best form for the final three games, going for 113, 127 and 138 in succession, the last of which gave Southern Miss a 28-21 win over ULL in the New Orleans Bowl.
Two receivers to watch were big gets for the Golden Eagles from East Mississippi CC in Allenzae Staggers and Isaiah Jones. Staggers was beyond electric in the open field, including a six-catch, 292-yard game vs. Rice and 230 yards on 11 receptions in the bowl win. Isaiah Jones' role will be expected to increase for his senior season after battling injuries through the second half of the season. He has a big body (6-foot-4, 195 lbs) and made an immediate first impression with a 71-yard touchdown catch that kickstarted Southern Miss' 34 unanswered points to win at Kentucky (44-35).
Three offensive linemen who proved to be outstanding leaders as well as performers are gone from 2016. Cameron Tom will await his draft fate after his decorated career on and off the field. Wil Freeman was a spiritual leader who shifted from defense to offense prior to his senior season and said playing for Southern Miss was always his football dream. Brandon Farmer and Oliver Bates were also fifth-year seniors that took all the left guard snaps. Ty Pollard earned the rare distinction of starting on the line as a freshman, and by season's end was named to the C-USA All-Freshman team.
The only two staff changes came on the offensive side of the ball in adding Erik Losey (offensive line) and Scotty Walden (inside receivers).
There are three notable losses on defense spread across the field. Dylan Bradley was one of the most potent in C-USA on the defensive line, and Elijah Parker stepped up for a big senior season at middle linebacker. D'Nerius Antoine, who like Parker was a JC signee two years prior, took on a large role at safety.
Curtis Mikell came into his own with a two-interception game at UTEP, including a 100-yard touchdown return. He played in all 13 games and started four, further increasing his role after two years primarily of wide receiver and special teams duties. Picasso Nelson, Jr. and Cornell Armstrong will also join Mikell in the secondary senior class, as will Tarvarius Moore and Trae Collins. Moore had a leaping interception near ULL's goal line in Southern Miss' 28-21 New Orleans Bowl win, and Collins picked one off at Kentucky shortly after the Golden Eagles took the lead for good late.
As of the final 2016 depth chart (Dec. 9), there were only two non-upperclassmen in the two-deep in defensive tackle LaDarius Harris and middle linebacker Jeremy Sangster. Xavier Thigpen was a physical force on the defensive line and special teams as well, blocking a punt on the first defensive series of the season. Draper Riley was also a projected starter last year before an injury held him out till the midway point and will look to make an impact in his fifth year with the program.
Parker Shaunfield, now a redshirt-junior, was given the reins as the Southern Miss kicker and did everything the squad could ask of him. He made 12 of his 14 field goals and all 40 PATs, with three of those field goals serving as the difference in the 44-35 victory at Kentucky (including a career-long 49-yarder). The Aledo, Texas, native earned Second-Team All-Conference nods.
Deep snapper Cody Block returns for his senior season, but fan favorite and leader Tyler Sarrazin has since graduated, leaving Zac Everett as a potential starter. Tez Parks had a team-high 19 kick returns last season, with now-departed senior D'Nerius Antoine second with eight, but that competition will remain open. Allenzae Staggers had 21 of the 27 punt returns last year, and his 75-yard score in last year's home opener was the first since Tracy Lampley in 2011.
-Two early enrollees will be present for spring football in Delmond Landry (DL, SW Mississippi CC) and Trevor Terry (WR, Jones JC).
-It begins the second season for Jay Hopson, who held two previous tenures at Southern Miss as an assistant coach.
-Southern Miss opens with Kentucky and Southern in back-to-back home weekends while also playing at ULM and Tennessee in non-conference play.