1. In our 2010 exit survey you said the pass defense was continually exploited last year. Now that spring practice has finished up who do you see being the key players that can help turn this around?
Pass defense has to start up front, and Southern Miss has made some defensive philosophy changes that should pay dividends. The move to a 4-2-5 allows a new "bandit" position to be created, and former linebacker Jamie Collins is taylor made for the position.
With the freedom to pursue the QB, Collins, a freakish athlete, should provide some pressure on passing downs. DT Khyri Thornton will also cause problems with his quickness and relentless pursuit.
The defensive backfield should be improved, and it has to be if the Eagles hope to have any chance to contend. Defensive back's coach Grady Brown told us returning starter Marcal Robinson, defensive back, was the most improved player in the backfield. His cover skills, along with already talented corner Deron Wilson, give Southern Miss talent to work with.
2. Larry Fedora is in his 4th season at the helm of Southern Miss. He's gone 7-6, 7-6 and 8-5 which is pretty much the same that Jeff Bower did before he was forced out. What does Fedora need to do better to get his team to the next level?
Last season, Southern Miss scored 43, 49, and 50 and lost all three games. With just a few stops on defense, this would have been a team that went 10-2.
To get this team to the next level, they have to find a way to play some defense. The offense is terrific, and Southern Miss can just outscore some opponents. However, to be playing for a conference Championship, you have to stop the other team when it is needed.
I will also add that Southern Miss was one of the most heavily penalized teams in college football last season. Coach Fedora needs to continue to instill discipline and toughness in this group to get them where they want to be.
All three phases of the game have to be consistent, and that was the message preached by this Coaching staff this spring.
3. For those that don't follow the Golden Eagles that closely...tell us a little about the best players on this team.
Quarterback Austin Davis is a tough, gritty, and intelligent signal caller who in short is just a great leader. He has already shattered the record books, and has the chance to be mentioned with some of the great quarterbacks that Southern Miss has had in its history if he can win a championship this season.
Recruited to play baseball, Davis came in as a freshman and has been the starter ever since. What he lacks in arm strength he makes up for with speed, decision making, and accuracy. He knows this system inside and out, and it is a thing of beauty when this offense is clicking on all cylinders.
Linebacker Korey Williams is everything you hope for in a linebacker. He has the speed to cover out of the backfield, and the strength to stuff a run up the middle. He has led Southern Miss in tackles for several years, and is always around the ball. He has a motor that doesn't stop and is the cornerstone of this defense.
Running back Kendrick Hardy is a big, strong running back who also has explosive speed. Mid way through last season as a freshman he burst onto the scene and fans knew they were watching someone special. If he can continue to develop and has strong summer work outs, this kid will get national attention.
As mentioned earlier, the new "bandit" position filled by former linebacker Jamie Collins should enable him to have that breakout year fans were hoping they would see last year. Collins can do it all. As athletically gifted as anyone, the coaching staff is putting a lot on him to both pressure the QB and drop back in pass coverage.
4. Who are some under-the-radar guys that you think could step up and surprise this year for the Golden Eagles?
Southern Miss has a young wide receiver who the coaches believe could eventually be playing on Sundays. Sophomore Dominique Sullivan was recruited out of high school to play quarterback.
Yet, in fall practice last year the coaching staff like his athletic ability so much they gave him a shot at wide receiver. Sullivan is still learning the position, but has moved to the top of the depth chart and has all the tools to be a star in this league.
Another hidden gem of a Fedora recruiting class is redshirt freshman running back Jamal Woodyard. He was a four star running back who many teams stopped recruiting because of a broken leg.
Southern Miss is glad they didn't give up on him. Woodyard was perhaps the most talked about break through performer of spring practice, and had several dazzling runs in the spring scrimmages. He will be a major contributor this fall.
Khyri Thornton is a defensive tackle who is loaded with potential. He'll have big shoes to fill this year with the loss of Anthony Gray, but Thornton is big and quick, and can be menacing to offensive linemen. He'll face double teams and should be a force to be reckoned with for the Eagles.
5. Looking at the schedule, what are the most important games for Southern Miss and why?
Southern Miss has a few early non-conference tests that have the opportunity to gain some national attention. A tough opener with Louisiana Tech, then trips to Virginia and Navy early will give the Eagles an idea of the type of team they have.
The season, however, depends on a conference championship, and to do that they must beat East Carolina on the road on November 5th and Central Florida at home on November 12th. Those two games will determine if Southern Miss can finally get to where it needs to be.
Watch out for the UAB game as well at the end of the year. The last two years the Blazers have given the Eagles devastating losses.
6. What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2011 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
If Southern Miss can get one of two from the road tests at Virginia and Navy, the schedule sets up nicely for this to be a 9 possibly 10 win team. The pieces are in place.
With returning starters in key places, a senior quarterback, better depth in the backfield, and a new defensive philosophy, this could be the break-out season fans have been hungry for in Hattiesburg.
My prediction is the Eagles end up 9-3 and win the East of Conference USA. Nothing short of winning the East will be successful. The Eagles hired Fedora to do just that, and in year 4 it is time to deliver.