HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Southern Mississippi's football program endured a disastrous freefall last season.
First-year coach Todd Monken is confident the turnaround can happen just as quickly.
The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator says the Golden Eagles have the talent to win quickly, despite a 0-12 record last season. Now Monken's charge is installing a new offense and defense and finding the most talented players to execute his plan regardless of experience level.
"We have a lot of (inexperienced) guys like that on this team," Monken said. "So what? So do a lot of teams. That's what (coaches) are supposed to do — figure it out. Put the pressure on them in practice. That's what you try to do, make it hard."
Southern Miss has had plenty of success in the recent past.
The Golden Eagles had a 12-2 record, won a Conference USA championship and the Hawaii Bowl in 2011 before offensive-minded coach Larry Fedora left for the North Carolina job.
In came veteran coach Ellis Johnson — who was known more for his defensive acumen — and Southern Miss quickly fell apart in a historically bad 2012 season. Johnson was fired soon after the season ended.
When Southern Miss hired Monken, they couldn't have found a coach much more similar to Fedora. Both were offensive coordinators at Oklahoma State before being hired at USM and both put lots of points on the scoreboard.
But Monken is still trying to find a quarterback at Southern Miss who can run his high-tempo offense. The three main candidates are spring starter Cole Weeks, California transfer Allan Bridgford and returner Ricky Lloyd.
Whoever wins the job will lead Southern Miss through a treacherous September schedule. The Golden Eagles have road games against Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State.
Southern Miss will likely lean on some of the veterans on defense, like defensive back Deron Wilson and linebacker Alan Howze, to guide the team through those early weeks while the offense is adjusting to new personnel.
Wilson said the Golden Eagles' home opener against Texas State on Aug. 31 is crucial. The senior has been through the good times and bad, and said a victory is needed to wipe away the bad feelings from last year.
"Winning solidifies the swagger," Wilson said. "But we're playing confident right now."
Five things to watch as Southern Miss prepares for its first season under coach Todd Monken:
1. A NEW START: The one-year Ellis Johnson era was disaster for Southern Miss, which plummeted to 0-12 just one season after winning 12 games. Johnson was fired and in comes Todd Monken, who was known for his innovative offense at Oklahoma State. Monken says there's enough talent on the roster for a quick turnaround, but the Golden Eagles must shake off last season's nightmare.
2. QUARTERBACK PLAY: Monken wants to run a high-tempo offense, but first he's got to find a quarterback who can handle the job. There's not an obvious replacement, though it appears the starter will come from a three-man battle involving spring starter Cole Weeks, California transfer Allan Bridgford and returner Ricky Lloyd.
3. NAVIGATING SEPTEMBER: Southern Miss has a brutal stretch of road games in September, with Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State all waiting. Those aren't easy games for a program that will probably need some time to find its footing with a new coach, new scheme and inexperienced quarterback.
4. NEW-LOOK CONFERENCE: There are lots of new faces in Conference USA thanks to conference realignment and the Golden Eagles will be playing several unfamiliar foes. There could be some interesting new conference rivalries develop with regional foes like Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee.
5. REVAMPED DEFENSE: Though it was the Southern Miss offense that took the brunt of the criticism last season, the defense wasn't particularly good either. Veterans like defensive back Deron Wilson and linebacker Alan Howze need to have big seasons for the Golden Eagles to improve.
Predicted finish: Fifth in East Division.
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