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Southern Miss Football’s Offensive Revamp and Defensive Dominance: A Preview of the 2023 Season

Charlie Luttrell

Offense Preview:

Anyone keeping up with Southern Miss Football the last few years, it is no secret that the offense has yet to impress under Southern Miss Head Coach Will Hall consistently. There are many reasons for this outside of Hall’s control. “This has been a tough rebuild” is something Coach Hall has said many times, and he is not wrong. For example, Hall came on staff in December of 2020 with only seven offensive linemen on scholarship, and the story of the offensive line so far in the Hall Era is comparable for the entire team these past three years. The effects of so few quality offensive linemen were evident in poor pass protection in the 2021 season littered with quarterback injuries, and with so many young O-Linemen last year, it took until the end of the season for the unit to come together.

All of this goes to say that two years ago, the ground was broken; last year, the foundation was poured, and this year will be the year Hall’s program and his legacy will be built. Throughout spring, summer, and fall camps, Billy Wiles and Holman Edwards, transfers from Clemson and Houston, respectively, battled it out to become the starting quarterback. On August 22nd, Coach Hall named Billy Wiles the starting QB. Wiles, the 6’3” QB, was touted as a deep-threat gunslinger while recruited to Southern Miss, but during fall camp, his short yardage package with over-the-middle passes was what impressed the most.

Everyone knows Frank Gore Jr.’s name, and since he arrived on campus, he has put this team and this university on his back. With the offensive line improvements, expect to see even greater things from Gore Jr. and his compatriots in the running back room. Kenyon Clay, a physically imposing beast, finished his redshirt season last year as a deadly threat in the short-yard gain. That is where he expected to be this upcoming season, but in fall camp, his allusiveness and footwork were much improved, and he showed that he can run it up the middle or make men miss. His size and skill set complement Gore and the other more shifty running backs in a way that will make defenses completely change their schemes depending on who is lined up at running back. Chandler Pittman, super back out of Magee, has shined all through camp. With his ability to line up in shotgun or out wide, he is a triple-threat player, and the fans will be happy to hear that he already has fantastic chemistry with starting QB Billy Wiles. During fall camp, he was lined up wide and made a one-handed touchdown catch that made the rounds on social media. The running back room will be the best Southern Miss has seen in a long time, as we have yet to mention Antavious Willis, who had two multi-touchdown days in Fall Camp, Dreke Clark, a talented transfer out of Memphis, Zahn Diaz, and true freshmen JQ Gray and Jack Schwing, both of whom are already impressing coaches and teammates alike.

What could be the most significant part of this offense has yet to be mentioned: the receiving core. Last year, nearly every time the ball went to the air was another episode of the Jason Brownlee show. However, the ball will be distributed around much more in his absence. Jakarius Caston and Ty Mims are the weapons fans will be most acquainted with. However, people like Cole Cavallo and Latreal Jones will get the ball much more than last year and are set for breakout seasons. Caston is a dynamic and dangerous route runner, and how he has muscled up this offseason should scare any defender. Ty Mims is only getting better after a tremendous rookie season. Cavallo is poised to have his nearly six years of hard work finally pay off with a breakout season where the ball may be passed to the tight end position that much more.


Moreover, Jones can use his speed and high football IQ by shocking defenders and catching deep balls and over-the-middle passes. Brandon Hayes is easily one of this team’s most dynamic and explosive players. Hayes is battling back from a horrendous injury that brought last year’s impressive beginning of the season to a screeching halt, but you would never assume as much upon looking at him in practice or fall camp. He has quickly become a favorite target of whoever is passing the ball to him, and in the third practice of Fall Camp, Edwards hit Hayes for a 70 and then 45-yard touchdown in the same five-minute span.


Overall, this offense is going to be completely different. With the improved offensive line, talented and deep running back room, depth, and competency at Quarterback, along with speed and route running in the receiving core, this Southern Miss offense is poised to have a fantastic year and likely compete with anyone they face.


Defense Preview:


With a dominant defensive line, overwhelming linebackers, and a backfield of DBs that sent two players to the NFL, it will be hard to top the 2022 Southern Miss Defense. This season, the Golden Eagles are returning seven players on the defense, and the positions that did lose starting players got reloaded in the transfer portal and recruited to be poised to match or potentially surpass last year’s defense.

This front seven is stacked. The defensive line is set to be among the best in the Sun Belt. With stars like Quentin Bivens, Jalen Williams, Josh Ratcliff, and Kristin Booth, the big guys are strong, domineering, and very mature. The linebacker core is a testament to how deep and dangerous this roster has become. Star Linebackers Swayze Bozeman and Hayes Maples both went down on injury last year, and some real studs took their place and developed into their own. Bozeman and Maples join TQ Newsome, Jalil Clemons, Josh Carr, and transfer addition Kolbe Cage. The linebacker room did take a hit, losing veteran Averie Habas to an undisclosed injury. Two seasons ago, losing someone like Habas would have sent the defense into a spiral, but this year, they have two or three other members at the JACK position who could quickly get the start on any other Sun Belt team. Expect this front seven to be among the best, if not the best, in the conference and potentially in the entire Group of Five.

Down the field is where question marks lie, but do not take that as there is a lack of talent or potential. Stars like Malik Shorts, Natrone Brooks, Jay Stanley, and Eric Scott Jr. dominated any opponent’s passing game. Three stars are gone, leaving Stanley as the sole veteran out deep. However, there are plenty of players that have gotten meaningful game time. As Head Coach Will Hall pointed out, Brendan Toles and Michael Carraway Jr. played “meaningful minutes” in the 4th Quarter of the Tulane game last year. Look for them to come into their own and fill the void left by the three veterans lost last year. Helping fill that gap some more are two transfers who will be making an immediate impact: MJ Daniels and Dylan Lawrence. Daniels is a cornerback out of Ole Miss who is incredibly talented and has earned a starting job throughout spring and fall camp.  Lawrence is a safety out of Mississippi State and an absolute beast. At 6’5″, he is the most physically imposing player in the backfield, and his speed and athleticism are far greater than someone his height ought to be.

One of the biggest things that has been overlooked, though, is the transition from Austin Armstrong to Dan O’Brien. Promoting from within is one of the better things seen in College Athletics, and to see Southern Miss doing just that is great to watch as a fan and encouraging to see as a player. O’Brien’s style is very similar to Armstrong’s; the main difference is a change in terminology, which will make the transition seamless for players and assistant coaches. Expect a very similar defense, just a slightly more cerebral and less fiery man behind the helm.

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