by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Maybe the third time is going to be the charm for Ellis Johnson, hired last December as the new coach at Southern Miss after Larry Fedora bolted Hattiesburg for North Carolina.

The first two head coaching experiences for Johnson didn’t go particularly well, but, then again, a lot has happened in the intervening years. Especially since his first head coaching assignment way back in 1983, when the then-30-year-old Johnson served for a year as head coach at Gardner-Webb, located in the metropolis of Boiling Springs, North Carolina. After a non-descript 5-6 mark, Johnson accepted an offer to join Mack Brown’s staff as defensive coordinator at Appalachian State the following year.

As have countless career assistants, Johnson has bounced between many jobs, although his c.v. lists increasingly-impressive duties as a defensive coach, including a stint at Alabama when he was a part of Gene Stallings’ staff during the Tide’s national title year of 1992. A subsequent stint at Clemson and a second tour of duty at Bama under Mike DuBose preceded another stab at the head coaching ranks early in the last decade at The Citadel, but Johnson never did better than .500 in his three years at Charleston, and after a 12-22 career mark with the Bulldogs decided to take another assistant job, this one in the SEC, as Sly Croom’s d.c. at Mississippi State.

Eventually, Johnson moved to Steve Spurrier’s staff at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks emerged as one of the nation’s top stop units under Johnson’s watch. A year ago, SC ranked fourth nationally in total defense. And Johnson, who had thrown his hat in the ring for several head coaching openings in recent years, finally had his named pulled in Hattiesburg, where he had once coached under Curley Hallman in the late ‘80s.

So, we know Johnson can coach defense. But evidence that he can succeed as a head coach is sketchy. Not to put too much weight in what happened at Gardner-Webb and The Citadel, but in four seasons, Johnson never posted a winning record.

Will Johnson’s move to Southern Miss be the latest example of a successful assistant/coordinator who can’t make the transition to the head coaching position? It might take a few years to get a clear answer to that question, although we should begin to get some hints this fall in Hattiesburg.

The program Johnson inherits isn’t chopped liver. Instead, it’s been more prime cut, with USM having recorded eighteen straight winning seasons and ten straight bowl bids. Johnson also runs counter to the majority of recent hires of offensive-oriented coaches, as the Golden Eagles did a few years ago when tabbing Fedora from Mike Gundy’s Oklahoma State staff.

Southern Miss also has a more decorated gridiron history than many might realize. The Golden Eagles were a powerhouse in the days of the old College Division, winning national titles under legendary coach Thad “Pie” Vann (left) in 1958 & ‘62. Vann, a defensive wizard who would eventually be elected to the College Hall of Fame, also engineered a few noteworthy upsets, including a 25-19 stunner over a fifth-ranked Alabama team in the opener of the 1953 season behind future Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Hugh Pepper, who was the RB star that night with 115 yards rushing, including a 66-yard TD run. At the time, some rated the shocker alongside Centre College’s 6-0 win over Harvard in 1921 as the greatest upset in college football history.

We learned after that game that the Golden Eagles, known as Mississippi Southern in those days, had applied for membership in the newly-formed ACC, but were not accepted into the loop and continued to campaign as an independent entry all of the way until 1995, when becoming one of the charters members of CUSA.

Vann had another major surprise up his sleeve in ‘53, beating a Georgia team led by future longtime NFL QB Zeke Bratkowski, 14-0. Not too bad a season’s work for Pie's team, scoring wins against a couple of high-profile SEC entries.

Southern Miss was at it again in 1970, two years after Vann’s retirement. Facing a 4th-ranked and unbeaten Archie Manning-led Ole Miss side in mid-October at Oxford, the Golden Eagles, now coached by Bear Underwood, were looking to avenge a 69-7 loss to Johnny Vaught’s Rebels the previous year. There wasn’t even a posted spread on the game (as there wouldn’t be in those years when a non-board team such as USM was involved), but the Golden Eagles pulled off a 30-14 shocker that was met with disbelief around the country. USM had simply out-hit Ole Miss, outrushing the Rebs 205-85, with Ray Guy’s booming points continually pinning Ole Miss deep in its own territory. Guy (right), of course, would go on to stardom as an NFL punter with the Raiders, and also played some QB in his time in Hattiesburg.

So big was the news of the upset that it impacted the Heisman Trophy race. Stanford’s Jim Plunkett was considered Manning’s top competition for the award, and the then-called Indians’ legendary SID (and radio announcer), Bob Murphy, who was running a shoestring campaign for Plunkett, passed out makeshift “Archie lost to Southern WHO?” items to the press the next week in a game at UCLA, a play on words to “The Ballad of Archie Who,” a twangy jingle created by the Ole Miss publicity department.

Plunkett did end up winning the Heisman, helped just a little bit, perhaps, by Southern Miss.

Southern would be heard from again in the early ‘80s with a Bobby Collins-coached team featuring long-legged QB Reggie Collier. The ‘81 version played Bear Bryant’s Alabama to a 13-13 draw and then destroying Bobby Bowden’s Florida State by a 58-14 count in November before accepting a bid to the Tangerine Bowl, where the Golden Eagles were a narrow 19-17 loser to Missouri. Later in the decade, first under the aforementioned Curley Hallman, then Jeff Bower, USM emerged again behind QB Brett Favre (left).

And for most of the two decades since, the Golden Eagles have been consistent winners and bowl regulars.

So why isn’t everyone excited in Hattiesburg, especially with the Golden Eagles off arguably their best-ever season, a 12-2 mark a year ago that included a thumping win over Houston in the CUSA title game and an exciting Sheraton Hawaii Bowl win in comeback fashion over Nevada?

Simply, the Golden Eagles have been hit with several whammies after last season. Fedora and much of his staff left for Chapel Hill. Four-year starting QB Austin Davis (right) finally graduated. Less than half of the starters (only 10) return from a year ago.

And, of course, there’s Ellis Johnson, whose credentials as a head coach, while not quite dubious, remain something of an unknown.

Johnson, who said immediately upon his hiring that he wasn’t going to do too much altering to the spread looks of the Fedora offense that ranked 17th nationally in total offense last season, will instead only authorize subtle adjustments under new o.c. Ricky Bustle, who once held the same position on Frank Beamer’s staff at Virginia Tech and then served for several years as UL-Lafayette’s head coach. Bustle’s version of the spread plans to make more liberal use of the running backs in the passing game, which looks to be the only strategic deviation from recent Fedora USM attacks.

Getting the RBs more involved in the passing game seems a good idea with plenty of experienced depth returning in the backfield, although last year’s leading rusher Jamal Woodyard (732 YR and 6.7 ypc!) is expected to miss the season because of a knee injury suffered in the bowl game vs. Nevada. But the likes of slammer Kendrick Hardy (5.9 ypc last fall) and 5'6 jitterbug Jeremy Hester (the star of the spring game) each flashed plenty of upside last year, and explosive dual-threat Tracey Lampley (left; 463 YR in 2011 as well as 47 pass receptions) figures to be a valuable weapon operating out of the slot.

The Golden Eagles also boast of experience on the front line, where three starters return led by sr. C Austin Quattrochi, an all-CUSA performer and a Rimington Award candidate. Jason Weaver, a 302-lb. LT, was granted an extra medical hardship season and should provide some help at the edge of the pocket. As usual, expect the USM wideouts to be able to get deep and gain plenty of yards after the catch The aforementioned Lampley is an established receiving target, and rangy 6'4 jr. Dominique Sullivan (right; 32 catches last season) certainly has the upside to become a game-changer if he can cut down on mental mistakes. Speedy frosh Keithon Redding could also be heard from sometime in the fall. Although there are a few questions at the receiver spots beyond multi-threat Lampley, having the RBs more involved in the passing game this fall appears to be a fine idea.

Now, who is going to play QB?

Eventually, most CUSA sources believe that ballyhooed true frosh Anthony Alford, a dual threat, will win the job. Although coming out of spring, Johnson seemed to give RS junior Chris Campbell, who has yet to take a snap in a college game, a lukewarm endorsement as the likely starter for the opener at Nebraska. Redshirt frosh Ricky Lloyd and RS soph Arsenio (Hall) Favor, a 6'3, 239-lb. bull who was limited in spring after minor knee surgery, could also enter the mix.

But the USM system covets signal-callers who can make things happen with their feet as well as their arms. And if Alford (who spurned SEC schools to stay close to home in Hattiesburg) is as good as advertised, don’t be surprised to see him emerge as “the man” sometime this fall.

Quarterback Davis didn’t leave the only big shoes to be filled, as graduated PK Danny Hrapmann was a clutch performer who nailed 23 field goals last fall. Soph Corey Acosta, however, has a big leg and did hit both of his FG tries a year ago when subbing for a hurting Hrapmann. The multi-threat Tracey Lampley, as well as being a dangerous runner and receiver, was also CUSA’s top punt returner last season.

Johnson’s major staff move on defense was enlisting veteran Tommy West, the onetime Memphis and Clemson head coach who could end up serving on every CUSA staff before his career is complete, as the coordinator of a fast-moving platoon that ranked in the top 30 of most meaningful national defensive stats a year ago.

Spring work indicated that West will retain the 4-2-5 looks that worked so effectively a year ago, although only four starters return on the stop unit. Top pass rusher Cordarro Law (spending summer in the NFL Seattle Seahawks’ camp) and the guts of the interior DL must all be replaced.

Fortunately, one of those back in the mix is big-play sr. “Bandit” Jamie Collins (left, vs. Houston in last December's CUA title game), a hybrid DE/LB and a likely CUSA Defensive MVP who amassed 19 ½ tackles for loss and 6 ½ sacks a year ago, not to mention returning an interception 97 yards for a score vs. East Carolina. CUSA sources say Johnson believes that a former South Florida commit, jr. DT Khyri Thornton, and 312-lb. soph NT Raheem Nunez-Roches, one of the “movers” in spring, look capable of plugging the holes in the defensive middle.

The linebacking corps is raw but explosive, with juco Dylan Reda imported from California specifically to step in immediately. Junior Alan Howze, a former RB, will be pushed hard by mobile RS frosh Terrick Wright and true frosh Calvin Perry, whose size and agility make him a potential destroyer sometime down the road.

Three starters are back in a secondary that also employs a hybrid “Spur” (part LB/part DB), a role filled admirably a year ago by jr. Jerrion Johnson. USM ranked seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense last season, a neat accomplishment in a league as pass-happy as CUSA, and the Golden Eagles did so partly because of big-play elements like fearless, 5-9 jr. SS Jacorius Cotton (last year’s USM tackle co-leader with 98) and CB Deron Wilson (right), who brought back two of his four interceptions for touchdowns.

The concern of West and Johnson, however, is that opposing passers might simply avoid throwing in Wilson’s direction and pick on the new starter at the other corner, either jr. Alexander Walters or sr. Marcal Robinson, neither with much on-field experience. They’ll have to hit the ground running or risk a hole emerging in the secondary.

Speaking of concerns, another for Ellis Johnson is the schedule; as usual, the Golden Eagles will take their shot at a couple of big boys, this year with the opener at Nebraska, and five weeks later hosting Boise State at Roberts Stadium. A trip to Papa John’s Stadium and a date vs. one of the Big East favorites, Louisville, precedes the Boise game. Visits to UCF and SMU look to be the most-challenging CUSA dates.

Summary...There are plenty of warning signs in Hattiesburg that USM could be due for a steep descent this fall. A new coach, new staff, and new QB in combination is usually a recipe for trouble, and the rebuilt offense appeared light years behind the defense in spring work. We also have our questions about Ellis Johnson’s head coaching credentials from past work, although we are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt after long-ago failures at Gardner-Webb and The Citadel. CUSA sources believe there is enough of a talented core left over within the Golden Eagle roster for USM to have a chance to stretch its bowl-year streak to 11 in a row. But even that could be in jeopardy unless one of the new QBs steps into the breach.


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