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USM preview

This is the fifth of a series previewing LSU’s Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and non-conference opponents in 2016.

The most famous football player in USM history was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend.

There was no questioning the toughness exhibited by former Golden Eagles quarterback Brett Favre. In 2015, Southern Mississippi ended a three-year stretch of horrible football with the leader being a quarterback cut out of the Favre mold.

USM posted a miserable 4-32 record from 2012-14. But, the Golden Eagles reversed course last season when they won nine games and played for the Conference USA championship. Without a doubt, quarterback Nick Mullens was the reason Southern Miss rebounded a year ago.

Golden Eagles QB Nick Mullens (AP Photo/Michael Noble Jr.)

Mullens completed 64 percent of his passes for nearly 4,500 yards and 38 touchdowns. Mullens threw just 12 interceptions. The Mullens-led offense averaged 510 yards and 40 points per game. But, Mullens’ words about the upcoming season reflect his attitude.

“We just have to be tough,” Mullens said. “We’re going to be a physical Southern Miss football team. Under coach (Jay) Hopson, we’re going to be nasty and we’re always going to fight harder than our opponent.”

Hopson is in his first season as Golden Eagles coach. He replaced Todd Monken, who went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their offensive coordinator. Hopson, who won two SWAC titles in four seasons at Alcorn State, understands the lofty expectations for a team which returns 13 starters.

“Our goal is to win a Conference USA championship,” Hopson said. “Last year was a great year, but that’s in the past. This is the year we want to win a championship. I told the players that on the Eagle Walk, they only put the championship teams up there.

“We have to be a mature football team. Any time you are picked No. 1 (in the conference), you have to be ready to earn everything every Saturday. You have to work to do things right and be successful. If you don’t do things the right way, you won’t be successful.”

Mullens is not the only returning playmaker on the USM offense. Ito Smith, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, is back. Smith also caught 49 passes for another 500 yards. The top returning receiver is DJ Thompson, who totaled 55 receptions last year.

The offensive line has three returning starters – center Cameron Tom and guards Devin Farrior and Brandon Farmer. Mullens, Thompson, Tom and Farmer are all seniors.

The Golden Eagles were unable to close out the 2015 season successfully because of their defensive problems. USM allowed 45 points to Western Kentucky in the CUSA championship game and 44 points to Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Southern Miss allowed 26 points and 380 yards per game.

The USM defense returns six starters – three in the secondary. The top defensive back is senior safety D’Nerius Antoine, who made a team-high 103 tackles last year. Antoine also had two interceptions and five pass breakups. Cornerback Cornell Armstrong broke up ten passes a season ago.

LSU will be the second SEC team on Southern Miss’ schedule. USM’s first game is against Kentucky in Lexington. The Golden Eagles began the 2015 campaign with a 34-16 loss at Mississippi State.

“A lot of the accolades I am getting are because of last year,” Mullens said. “As a player, you can’t worry about last year. I’ve said it a couple of times. It’s all about 2016. Everybody is working hard. We have the potential to be good.”

LSU vs. USM at Tiger Stadium

Saturday, Oct. 15; Kickoff: TBA

Head coach: Jay Hopson, first year at USM

2015 record: 9-5, 7-1 in CUSA (first in Western Division)

2015 postseason: lost to Western Kentucky 45-28 in CUSA championship game, lost to Washington 44-31 in Heart of Dallas Bowl

Returning starters: 15 (7 on offense, 6 on defense, 2 specialists)

Top offensive returnees

RB Ito Smith, Jr. – 171 carries, 1,128 yards, 10 touchdowns

QB Nick Mullens, Sr. – 521 attempts, 331 completions, 64 percent completion, 4,476 yards, 38 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

WR DJ Thompson, Sr. – 55 catches, 779 yards, 6 touchdowns

Top defensive returnees

S D’Nerius Antoine, Sr. – 103 tackles, 2 interceptions

LB Elijah Parker, Sr. – 6½ tackles-for-loss

DT Dylan Bradley, Sr. – 6½ sacks, 6 quarterback-hurries

CB Cornell Armstrong, Jr. – 2 interceptions, 10 pass breakups

Top special teams returnees

KR Ito Smith, Jr. – 11 returns, 233 yards

P Tyler Sarrazin, Sr. – 45 punts, 39.8-yard average

K Stephen Brauchle, Sr. – 11-of-14 FGs, 48-of-52 XPs

All-CUSA candidates: WR DJ Thompson, OL Cameron Tom, OL Devin Farrior, QB Nick Mullens, RB Ito Smith, DL Dylan Bradley, DB D’Nerius Antoine.

Next: South Alabama