We’re just three days away from WKU’s trip to Hattiesburg to take on Southern Miss. WKU looks to keep the momentum going against a Southern Miss squad still alive for the West Division title. With all of that in mind, we thought that we’d get a Southern Miss perspective on the game. Luckily for us, we got Jamie Arrington from the To The Top Talk Podcast to give us his thoughts on the Southern Miss program, the game, and some predictions. Without further adieu, here is our conversation with the Jamie.
Southern Miss (7–3) is in the tied for First in the West division of CUSA (with Louisiana Tech) with two games to play. Why has this season been so successful thus far in Hattiesburg?
I think there are a number of factors contributing into the success thus far in 2019. First would have to be the depth. This is the deepest and most complete roster we’ve had in Jay Hopson’s tenure. Outside of the 2015 season, Southern Miss has been in a constant battle with getting close to an 85 man roster since the disaster of the 2012 season. Next would have to be experience. Many of the players contributing now saw the field as underclassmen and that is paying dividends now. I also believe the change at offensive coordinator has been a positive.
Head Coach Jay Hopson is having the best season of his tenure in Hattiesburg. What do fans think of his tenure thus far?
At this point, the response is mixed. Some understand the situation he inherited and the lack of resources but at the same time championships are expected at Southern Miss. We are in the midst of the longest CUSA Championship drought for the Golden Eagles since the conference was formed so it is understandable why fans are getting a little restless. I think most appreciate his approach to building the program in a sustainable way and hope he is on the verge of bringing another trophy back to the Hub City.
Southern Miss has a proud football history but has struggled to break through to a conference title since Larry Fedora left in 2011. What changed about the job since its late 90’s heyday?
Everything changed the day after Southern Miss won the CUSA Championship in 2011. It was announced that Larry Fedora was leaving but would be coaching in the bowl game. Rather than take a bowl game in Dallas against Penn State on January 2nd, the team opted for a trip to the Hawaii Bowl and this infuriated many fans and alumni. I understood why they did it. The bowl was before Christmas, would be a nice reward for the players and would allow for a swifter break for both the old and new staff when it came to recruiting. But it was not well received at all. Shortly thereafter, our administration made the worst hire in sports history before they all were eventually fired or let go. Ellis Johnson inherited a 12–2 team and finished his only season with an 0–12 record. He didn’t respect the program when he was hired and totally depleted the team culture. The talent was there for at least a 6 win team. The 0–12 team was made up of future NFL talent such as Jamie Collins, Khyri Thornton, Jalen Richard and Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Many players quit or were forced out and the program was left in shambles. Todd Monken was the next hire and inherited an absolute mess. It took his three seasons to bring the program back to respectability, but he had to take some junior college/graduate transfers just to have upperclassmen. This is one of the reasons it has taken so long to build a full roster. During this time, Southern Miss was left behind by many of their peers and conference mates due to conference realignment. The frustrating part was that it mainly had to do with market size rather than the size of the fan base or performance on the field. Also, during this stretch (2011-present), Southern Miss has gone through 5 different athletic directors and three different acting presidents. To say it has been the most tumultuous time in school history would be an understatement but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
now onto the game…
Quarterback Jack Abraham is in the conversation for the all-conference first team. What kind of player is he and what changed from year one to year two as a starter?
At Media Day this preseason, when asked who he modeled his game after, Jack responded “Drew Brees”. You can see it in his game not only from his stature but his accuracy. When Jack has time to throw, he might be the most accurate passer in college football. Abraham was told that he would never be a Division 1 quarterback by a college football as an underclassman mainly because of his size. That is the fuel for the kind of attitude and edge that has been prevalent with Golden Eagle greats of the past. In addition to the year of experience under his belt, Jack has benefited from the scheme of new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner. Faulkner has done an excellent job of using players to accentuate their capabilities rather than trying to force players into his scheme.
Wide Receiver Quez Watkins leads Conference USA in receiving yards? What makes him such a tough matchup on the edge?
The “Quez Dispenser” has evolved into one of the best route runners in the league. Add in a knack for the ball with breakaway speed and you have the leading receiver in CUSA even though he missed the first two games. I think the most noticeable difference I’ve seen in Quez this season has been maturity and his approach to the game.
Who are some other skill position players that WKU fans should worry about on Saturday?
DeMichael Harris has emerged as the starter at running back after spending the previous season as a slot receiver. That transition is paying dividends as it allows the offense to maximize speed at the skill positions. Harris is one of the fastest players on the team and can break a big play at any time. I am not sure about the status of Jaylond Adams (he did not play against UTSA due to an unspecified injury) but if he is active he is definitely one to keep an eye on. He was the first player this season to return both kickoffs and punts for touchdowns. Having Watkins, Harris and Adams on the field at the same time can be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Defensively USM has an average unit (73 in Defensive SP+) that is strong against the run (106.4 yards per game). How would you describe the unit’s effectiveness and who do the Golden Eagles depend on to make plays?
There were high expectations for this Southern Miss defense given their performance in 2018 and the number of players coming back. There have been frustrations early this season but outside of a few busted plays against UTSA, the defense has really been excellent as of late. It all starts up front and size, depth and experience on the defensive line has been crucial. Jacques Turner is a difference maker but keep an eye on the pass rush Terry Whittington. The heart of the defense is Preseason All-CUSA linebacker Racheem Boothe. He missed some time in the middle of the season but is getting back to form. The secondary has been a little more vulnerable than expected but also have the ability to make game-changing plays. Shannon Showers has been playing better as of late but should miss the first half of this game due to a targeting call against UTSA.
How do you see the game playing out? What is your prediction?
This 2019 Hilltopper team is one that is definitely exceeding preseason expectations. Not only are they coming off a much-needed bye, they are also riding the momentum of a huge win in Fayetteville. This is a must-win for both teams if they want a shot at the conference title. I fully expect everything to be left on the field. I hate making predictions because I usually get them wrong but I see things playing out like this. The Golden Eagles will take an early lead and the Hilltoppers will battle back into the game keeping it close heading into the second half. From there, the winner will be decided by who has more points on the board at the end of the game. Is that a cop out? Yes, it is. Do I believe that I have any control in the outcome of the game? No, I do not. But just in case, I don’t want to jinx the black and gold by shooting off at the mouth. Please respect my decision. In all seriousness, I have family with WKU ties and have been looking forward to this game for quite some time. I wish we played each other every year but we’ll take what we can get. Hope to welcome some of you Topper fans to The Rock this Saturday. Good luck.