Southern Miss had a couple of close calls in 2012 as it lost to Louisville by four points, UCF in double overtime and to Texas-El Paso but just one point. It lost eight of its games by double-digit margins, including lopsided setbacks to Nebraska, Western Kentucky, Rice, Marshall and SMU.
The Golden Eagles had their streak of 10 consecutive bowl appearances come to an end, and although that was somewhat expected, Johnson was fired because of the disastrous campaign. Former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken was handed the reins to the program in a much different Conference USA.
"We said going into this search that we wanted to find a dynamic leader with the character to lead our program back to prominence, so," said athletic director Jeff Hammond. "I believe today, with the hiring of Todd Monken, we have accomplished that. With his extensive background at some of the premier programs in college football and in the NFL, we believe he is perfectly positioned to return the Golden Eagles to competing both in Conference USA and in the national spotlight."
The Cowboys ranked in the top five in the FBS in both total offense and scoring offense in each of the past two seasons with Monken as their coordinator.
OFFENSE: No one managed to fill the shoes of Austin Davis last season which led to a stagnant offensive performance by Southern Miss. Five different players saw action under center and freshman Anthony Alford, who led the team in pass attempts, transferred to Ole Miss after the winless campaign. Senior Chris Campbell and sophomore Ricky Lloyd both started multiple games last season. Lloyd, who tore his ACL midway through last season, is more likely to start because his pocket passer style is more fitting for Monken's spread offense. Redshirt freshman Kyle Sloter could get a chance to be a leader right away if Lloyd doesn't succeed.
Sophomore tailback Jalen Richard will be the go-to-guy on the ground after picking up 426 yards on 87 carries in 2012. Senior Jeremy Hester returned kickoffs his first two seasons before moving to a backup running position under Johnson. Hester is the second leading rusher (196 yards) among returners.
It was tough to evaluate the USM wideouts last season due to the ineffectiveness under center. Senior Dominique Sullivan paced the squad with 331 yards and three touchdown on 19 catches. Fellow senior Justin Sims (5-7, 165) is tough to bring down in the open field after a catch but needs to line up in the slot because of he is undersized for the position. The Golden Eagles' wideouts may not have too much time to run their routes again this season as the offensive line that gave up 2.5 sacks per game last season needs to replace four starters.
DEFENSE: The defensive unit was not any more impressive than the offense, although it had to be difficult maintaining intensity due to the abnormally high number of reps. USM was 83rd in the nation in total defense with 426.5 yards allowed per game and 113th in scoring defense with an allowed average of 37.8 ppg.
While superstar defensive end Jamie Collins will be tough to replace, the Golden Eagles have three starters returning to the defensive line including senior defensive tackle Khyrl Thornton (6-4, 308), who is an all-conference candidate after registering 9.5 tackles for loss in 2012. Junior nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches (6-2, 290) could also play a big role in the rebuilding process as he is able to provide a consistent burst on the interior.
USM will also have back all three of its starting linebackers in seniors Dylan Reda (6-1, 230), Alan Howze (6-3, 227) and Jerrion Johnson (6-0, 205). Howze registered 66 total tackles as a junior which makes him the team's leading returner in that category.
"We've got more experience (in the defensive backfield) with guys who have played a lot of football. The confidence comes across a little more. Our secondary will be a strength, between Jacorious Cotton, Deron Wilson, Jerrion Johnson, Emmanuel Johnson Kalen Reed and Alex Walters. There are a lot of guys who have played. So those guys are confident. We're just trying to get better."
Wilson is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield. He does have four interception returns for scores in his career and also a punt return touchdown. The group will have to find a way to make more plays as USM managed to pick off only five passes total in 2012 with no player intercepting more than one pass. Cotton has seen a fair share of action throughout his career with the black and gold which will make him one of the leaders of the defense for his senior year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The speedy Sims is expected to be the main weapon for the Golden Eagles in the return game. His size, or lack there of, and his uncanny ability to accelerate keeps pursuing tacklers off-balance in the open field.
Sophomore punter Matthew Moseley is going to be given the chance to take over the fourth and long duties for the departing Peter Boehme, who was a four-year starter. Moseley set a school record with a 73-yard punt in 2011. Place kicker Corey Acosta drilled both of his attempts from beyond 50 yards last season, but went just 11-of-17 for the year. If his kicking accuracy catches up to his power, he could contend for a spot on the All-Conference team.
OUTLOOK: There is little doubt that Southern Miss will find a way to produce a more successful season in 2013 as it has a few of its easier matchups at home at Roberts Stadium.
The Golden Eagles could end their current losing slide right away when they kickoff their season in Hattiesburg against Texas State on the final day of August. They will then have a trio of tough non-conference road bouts at Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State. USM opens up its C-USA slate at home against new member FIU before it hits the road to take on East Carolina, which is projected to be one of the top teams in the league. It then has another home game versus North Texas before a two-game road swing with stops at Marshall and Louisiana Tech. The Golden Eagles will close out their season with tilts against Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee at Roberts Stadium and a regular-season finale against UAB at Legion Field.
Monken is not going to be able to resurrect the program instantly as the pieces are not in place to properly run his fast-paced offensive system. The Golden Eagles could finish around the .500 mark if the current members of the squad are able to grasp the basics of the new system.