The Southern Miss football team conducted its first scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday at Roberts Stadium, giving coaches a glimpse at an experienced group anxious for a breakout 2019 campaign.

The first half of the scrimmage was mostly dominated by the defense, which came up with four interceptions returned for touchdowns — two by redshirt senior defensive back Ernest Gunn and two more by freshman Markel McLaurin and senior Taj Jones

After putting the ball on the ground a few times and struggling to put together lengthy drives, the offense finally found its stride in the second half of the scrimmage behind the team’s top two quarterbacks, redshirt junior Jack Abraham and sophomore Tate Whatley.

Whatley tossed three interceptions, but also threw three touchdowns and showed that he’s getting better at hitting targets down field.

Redshirt junior receiver Quez Watkins, who sat out the spring, said Saturday that he has seen significant improvement out of Whatley since he was forced into action late in the 2018 campaign.

“Tate has brought his arm to a whole other level this season,” Watkins said. “His decision making is tremendous.”

Abraham continues to run with the first string, but Whatley appears to have helped his chances of seeing more playing time in the first week of fall camp.

“I just have to show that I can lead the team and understand the game,” he said. “It’s just knowing where to go with the ball, knowing the plays and being smarter on the field.”

Other takeaways from USM’s scrimmage and Media Day on Saturday:

▪ Sophomore center Trace Clopton and freshman guard Coker Wright were both held out of Saturday’s scrimmage due to unspecified injuries, but head coach Jay Hopson and offensive line coach Ryan Stanchek said that they are expected to return to practice soon.

The first-string offensive line to start Saturday’s scrimmage was: Left tackle – Drake Dorbeck, left guard – Ty Pollard, center – Arvin Fletcher, right guard – Khalique Washington, right tackle – Tanner Hawthorne.

Stanchek said that Hawthorne, a junior college transfer who began his career at Purdue, has been a quality addition to the offensive line.

“His maturity really shows,” Stanchek said. “He really treats things like a pro, works hard. That mindset has really been refreshing for the group. He’s a guy that been a few places and he’s happy to be where he is. I’m excited for Tanner to get rolling.”

▪ Junior receiver Tim Jones, a Biloxi native, had the best day of the receivers with three catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns.

▪ Hopson seemed open to the idea of moving redshirt junior Jacques Turner from the Wolf position, which is a linebacker/defensive end hybrid, back to defensive end as the fourth-year head coach becomes more confident that he has enough depth at the Wolf.

“I don’t know,” Hopson said. “We’re going to see. He could be at the hybrid. He could play either one. You’ll see him on the field. I’ll promise you that.”

Hopson said that he was impressed Saturday by the play of Terry Whittington and Torrence Brown, a pair of graduate transfers, and that the two players could be making a push on the depth chart. Their emergence may make it easier to move Turner back to defensive end.

▪ Freshman running back T.Q. Newsome received several carries during Saturday’s scrimmage and got in the end zone once.

At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, the Gulfport product showed some power at running back, lowering his shoulder into a defender on one 6-yard run.

“He’s a guy that’s going to work himself into a good player,” offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner said. “He’s extremely smart. It’s a deep room. We’ll see how he works with the other guys.”

Hopson said he was encouraged Saturday by the play of returning starting running back Trivenskey Mosley and junior college transfer Kevin Perkins.

“I think (Perkins) has had some tough, physical runs in there,” Hopson said.

▪ Freshman Andrew Stein handled the place-kicking duties during Saturday’s scrimmage, making a pair of field goals, and seems to have a significant early edge on being the first-string kicker for the Aug. 31 opener against Alcorn State. Junior Briggs Bourgeois, who made a pair of field goals last year, is sidelined with an unspecified injury.