As a Southern Miss fan, you get accustomed to certain cycles. Straight-ahead runs on two out of three first downs, a failed jailbreak screen once every quarter or so (success here is defined by the lack of an interception, or the unfortunate receiver’s ability to walk off the field after the play), a finish in total offense somewhere in the indistinguishable morass between 65th and 95th, give or take. And then, every couple years or so, a new coordinator. There was Larry Kueck, from 1996-99; Chris Klenakis, from 2000-02; Rip Scherer, from 2003-04; and Jay Johnson, from 2005-07. There was no apparent difference between any of them in form or substance -- unlike the similar line of home-grown defensive coordinators who looked alike because they came from the same "tree," and likewise went on to promotions at SEC schools, all four offensive caretakers of the last decade were fired in short order for producing nearly identical results from, by all apperances, a completely identical set of plays. Even if you’re switching out the decision-making brains in the booth, obviously the philosophy can only take you so far.
It’s a good thing the team made a habit of scoring more points via turnovers or special teams than it earned through actual offensive production, or the seasons of 7-5 discontent would have been that much more unbearable (2002 and 2007, the years the yardage and scoring averages had the highest correlation, were also the only years in this stretch USM logged a negative turnover margin). It looks like there’s reason for optimism through the Johnson years, and there is: in Damion Fletcher, USM has the second-leading rusher among active backs and the only bona fide offensive playmaker in the program since the Artist Formerly Known as Derrick Nix gamed his way through a failing kidney and a series of nagging ailments in the early years of the decade. Despite the emphasis on the run and the void at quarterback the last two years, Johnson also had last year two of the most promising receivers in the program -- hell, the only promising receivers since Sherrod Gideon and Todd Pinkston graduated in 1998 -- in redshirt freshman Torris Magee and Shawn Nelson, one of the fastest tight ends slated for next year’s draft and one of maybe three or four guys at Southern who could legitimately play anywhere. With those three, Johnson had more talent at his disposal than any of his predecessors since the halcyon days of the late nineties.
Taken in context, though, that and a quarter will get you a gumball: even though their ranking was up nationally, within defense-averse Conference USA, the Eagles finished tenth out of twelve in total offense and ninth in scoring, their worst in-conference performance in C-USA’s twelve-year existence. It’s one thing to get held to 19 at Tennessee; but scoring 16 and 17 in lopsided losses to Boise State and Central Florida, respectively, and 16 in a horribly-attended, too-close home win over Arkansas State, while turning the ball over seven times in a nationally televised nightmare come to life against the worst-ranked defense in the country (Rice...Rice, which is Rice) is not improvement. By December, I was getting congratulatory phone calls from partisans of bigger schools for the way the Eagles were playing against Cincinnati, an old rival they used to beat on a regular basis -- and USM was losing at the time.
It’s been a good decade since I’ve counted on Southern Miss’ offense to do anything against halfway decent competition except take advantage of short fields and not screw things up for the defense. There are a couple reasons this approach, always one of desperation, anyway, is no longer tenable: a) The defense, while leading the wretched C-USA pack in points allowed the last two years, has been well below even a generous standard to qualify as a "strength," and b) C-USA’s offenses flew off the charts: three-fourths of the conference put up 400 yards and/or 29 points per game last year. That group does not include USM, but it does encompass all three of the league rivals that knocked off the Eagles (Rice, UCF and Memphis averaged 31 points in those wins) and all five teams that finished in front of Southern in the standings. The most prolific offenses in the league, West division frontrunners Tulsa and Houston, weren’t on the schedule, or it might have been really ugly.
To Fletch and Fletch alone: Don’t ever change.
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Thank god for Larry Fedora -- I think. As foreign as it feels, from this starting point, there is no choice but to be optimistic about the transition to his more diverse, wide open scheme, which at Oklahoma State and Florida was consistently among the best in the SEC and Big 12, and at OSU last year managed the impossible feat of averaging 243.15 yards rushing and 243.15 yards passing. Even Middle Tennessee State finished in the top 25 in yards and points with Fedora wielding the controls in 2000 and 2001. His coordinator, Darrell Wyatt, comes from years at Oklahoma and more recently the generally successful spread transplant at Arizona. USM hasn’t sent a running back, receiver or tight end to the NFL since Gideon and Pinkston, but suddenly might have four draft picks in the next three or four years: there are actual players to run an aggressive, balanced spread system -- Fletcher, Nelson, Magee and DeAndre Brown, the only five-star recruit in C-USA history (who reportedly passed the NCAA clearinghouse last week despite early skepticism) -- real playmaking athletes with pro potential, rather than generic two-star guys you plug in to get by. Freddie Parham has been completely overshadowed by Brown but is the only other incoming skill player in C-USA rated four stars by Rivals. Physically, it’s the best overall set of skill guys in the league; even Tulsa, which was more aggressive and gained more yards per game than any team in the country last year, isn’t as talented.
Does it matter that there is no experience whatsoever at quarterback, nor any of the potential of the other ball-handling positions? That a lightly regarded former walk-on emerged as the likely starter in the spring? That USM’s last high profile recruit flamed out in less than a year? That Arizona’s big passing totals were often of the high volume/low yield variety, consisting of a parade of short bubble screenish calls? That Fedora’s first season at Oklahoma State in 2005 was a complete flop, the lowest-scoring unit in the Big 12, and his potential as a head coach -- like that of all of most of his prospective weapons -- remains purely speculative? That virtually no one -- and certainly not the great and mighty Steele -- has such black and gold stars in their eyes? I would say yes, all of those facts probably matter a great deal.
Like the election in November, though, I'm counting (maybe foolishly) on the virtues of a fresh, forward-thinking environment to overcome the rough edges. Philosophically, the change couldn’t be more essential -- 25 points per game will not win a conference championship in these parts anymore, especially opposite a defensive line that lost all four starters and a secondary that lost three of four. For the first time that I remember, there is some reasonable expectation of explosiveness. If quarterback is a burden, the offense can lean on Fletcher and sustain the modest gains of the last couple years; if Davis, Martevious Young or Bret Jeffcoat is even a little bit competent under center, nothing will be more disappointing than another year of the status quo.