Southern Miss begins spring training

Published 7:35 pm Saturday, March 19, 2016

HATTIESBURG (AP) – Sometimes the toughest situation for a new head coach is inheriting a team that’s expected to win.

Just ask Ellis Johnson.

Jay Hopson will start his first spring practice as the Southern Miss football coach on Tuesday and most expect the Golden Eagles to pick up where they left off after going 9-5 last season.

Jay Hopkins

Jay Hopkins

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Before former USM coach Todd Monken decided to take the job as offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in late January, the 2016 campaign was expected to be a special one for the USM football team.

The Golden Eagles return one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks from 2015, senior Nick Mullens, and a good bit of talent on defense.

Sure, there are spots to fill on both sides of the ball. But the schedule is favorable and fans will have little tolerance for taking a step back this year after the team went 4-32 in 2012-14.

“It is what it is,” Hopson said Saturday. “We expect to compete for championships every year at Southern Miss. We had a good season last year. It was the first winning season in three years. We know we want to build on that. I’ve got to win. That’s the bottom line. Nobody wants to hear an excuse. We’re well aware of that.

“It’s been a while since we had a win over a (Power 5 team). That’s something we want to build towards. You want to win championships, but you also want to get back to being that team that nobody wants to play anymore.”

USM will have its first shot at a victory over an SEC team since the 21-0 win at Alabama in 2000 in the season opener at Kentucky on Sept. 3.

This spring will be crucial for Hopson and his staff to keep the momentum rolling for the program.

On Tuesday, Hopson and his staff will get their first chance to interact on the field with their new players.

“It’s kind of like Christmas Day for us,” Hopson said. “You’ve watched film and got your evaluations, but nothing is like watching in person. It’s a chance to evaluate everybody. It’s a great teaching time for us. It’s a chance to put in a new system, but also to evaluate what you have.”

In watching film of last year’s team, Hopson came away impressed.

“I’m excited,” he said. “We’ve got some playmakers on offense. Defensively, we certainly return players up front and also at defensive back. It’s been a great offseason. You see everybody working hard. I’m excited about the players.”

Hopson believes the transition to a new staff won’t be difficult for the returning players.

Johnson’s one year as the USM head coach in 2012 involved drastic changes on offense that contributed to a disastrous 0-12 season.

With former West Virginia and Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson taking over what was a potent and versatile spread offense in 2015, there won’t be many changes to the system.

“I think it will be very similar,” Hopson said in comparing last year’s offense to what Dawson will install. “They all branch from the same tree as far as systems.

“There will not be a whole lot of learning in the spring. There will be little things that are different defensively, but it will just be different (terminology) here and there.”

While USM returns all-conference talent like Mullens, senior center Cameron Tom and junior running back Ito Smith, each player will have to prove themselves to the new staff this spring.

“Everybody has got a clean slate. Everybody is competing for a job,” Hopson said. “The players get a fresh shart and a chance to prove what they can do.”

By Patrick Magee,