Not since former head coach Todd Monken led the Southern Miss football team through his first spring five years ago have there been more key positions up for grabs entering the spring game.
Third-year head coach Jay Hopson and his staff hope to make progress in filling those crucial gaps in the lineup when the USM spring game kicks off at noon on Saturday at Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg.
There were 12 players atop the team’s depth chart at the end of the 2017 season who wrapped up their eligibility. Listed among the starters moving on are three players with a legitimate shot of getting selected in next week’s NFL draft — running back Ito Smith, receiver Korey Robertson and safety Tarvarius Moore.
Southern Miss lost all three of its starting receivers, five starting defensive backs and Smith, who accounted for almost 6,000 yards from scrimmage during his time at USM.
With so much experience on defense and production on offense to replace, here’s what coaches and fans alike will be looking for Saturday at The Rock:
▪ Quarterback question: Redshirt senior Kwadra Griggs, who was USM’s starter when healthy last season, has missed all of spring practice with an injury that requires a walking boot. That’s allowed sophomore Jack Abraham, junior Keon Howard and redshirt freshman Marcelo Rodriguez to get plenty of snaps this spring. Abraham and Howard have received the majority of the snaps with the first string.
After Griggs and Howard combined to complete just 56 percent of their passes last season, USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson wants to see a dramatic upgrade in that area.
Dawson wants his quarterback to complete 65-70 percent of his passes this season and whoever leaves the spring showing the best accuracy will enter the summer with the edge.
▪ Receivers on the rise: Sophomore Tim Jones was expected to step into a key role in the receiving corps this spring, but the Biloxi product has missed a good chunk of practice with an unspecified injury. That’s allowed Long Beach native Trevor Terry to see more time with the first string. Redshirt sophomore Quez Watkins has had a productive spring, including a big scrimmage on April 6 with four catches for 123 yards and three touchdowns. During that same scrimmage, Terry had four receptions for 100 yards. In the slot, keep an eye out for a couple of first-year players — junior college transfer De’Michael Harris and redshirt freshman Bubba Fludd.
▪ Secondary depth: D’Iberville’s Ty Barnes has had a strong spring camp and is on pace to potentially start at safety as a sophomore. He’s part of an inexperienced secondary that will be dealing with plenty of pressure. It helps that redshirt senior Picasso Nelson has returned from injury to take over at the nickel, but there is much to be proven for the rest of the group. One newcomer the staff needs to step in and be a starter immediately at cornerback is East Mississippi Community College transfer Ty Williams.
▪ Who is No. 1 at running back?: Redshirt senior Tez Parks finally gets his chance to be the go-to man at running back, but he still has to prove he can be a durable option. Two other seniors, T’Rod Daniels and George Payne, bring experience to the role. One player that USM fans should watch closely Saturday is redshirt freshman Steven Anderson, a converted quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Anderson has shown flashes of brilliance during the spring and will be tough for any defender to bring down. Redshirt freshman Darius Maberry is still working his way back from a knee injury that he suffered in December and still has work to do in order to get on the field for 2018.
▪ Most improved: One player who has a chance to make a big leap on defense is redshirt sophomore Jacques Turner, who had a promising first season a year ago. The defensive end from D’Iberville could emerge as the team’s best pass rusher after accounting for 21 tackles and four sacks last year. Expect Turner to be in the backfield a bunch on Saturday and for much of the 2018 campaign.