Southern Mississippi has always been known for having a solid defense. Playing them early provides coaches with an honest assessment of what might lie ahead when the bell sounds for conference play to begin.
The Golden Eagles lost their top two tacklers from a year ago. Linebacker Kevis Coley and his twin brother Trevis Coley almost got an opportunity to play near home. The former Palatka High School stars combined for 259 stops, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries.
USM returns only four starters along their front seven. Two of the returning starters are at defensive end and the others at linebacker. Bandit end Robert Henderson (6-3 280) is the leading returning tackler (47), tackles for loss leader (7.5), and he tied for the overall team lead in sacks last season with five. Henderson has good strength and size for a bandit end. He has pretty good speed and some quickness. He started seven games last season for Southern Miss.
Playing opposite is redshirt senior Matt Chatelain (6-2 247) who doesn’t possess the speed, quickness, or strength of Henderson, but has a motor that never stops. Chatelain started the entire season in ’05 and saw significant action two years ago as a reserve.
Inside the Golden Eagles will play noseguard Sean Merrill (6-3 294) and defensive tackle Martavious Prince (6-3 286). Merrill is a former LSU signee, who transferred to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College where he earned defensive MVP honors in the conference. Merrill is an aggressive player who goes hard all day. Prince saw limited action last season. He plays the run well, but is not established as a pass rusher.
Experience is at a minimum for the Golden Eagles at linebacker. Strongside linebacker James Denley (6-2 235) took over when current middle linebacker Gerald McRath suffered an injury in the Golden Eagles third game of the 2005 season. Denley continued to improve and won the job this spring. Denley is a solid, but unspectacular player.
The Southern Miss coaches moved McRath from his strongside linebacker position to the Mike to fill the void left when Kevis Coley completed his eligibility. The redshirt freshman hasn’t really had an opportunity to demonstrate his abilities other than on the practice field.
Southern Miss will use a pair of players at the Will. Sophomore Tokumbo Abanikanda (6-0 213) is expected to provide playmaking abilities and athleticism for the Eagles. He saw limited action, but had his finest performance in the New Orleans Bowl. Meanwhile redshirt senior Wayne Hardy (6-0 235) returns as the second man off the bench after starting 12 games last season. The former fullback was the Golden Eagles fifth leading tackler in ’05.
The Florida offensive line situation would perfectly fit into the opening of the ‘70’s television comedy, “Soap”. Let’s try it…Drew Miller was an offensive guard last year who moved to tackle in the spring, but due to injuries- he’s back at guard. Jim Tartt was supposed to play guard last season, but required shoulder surgery and missed the season. Tartt is back from the injury, but has been held out as a precautionary measure. He will be at left guard though when the game begins. Steve Rissler was an offensive guard who moved to center. Carlton Medder seems to be the guy at right tackle. It works.
The bottom line is that a bunch of guys have moved and they’ll get their first test this Saturday. Nobody will be more closely scrutinized than the tackles. Phil Trautwein is charged with protecting Chris Leak’s backside and if the coaches get true freshman Tim Tebow an early look, Carlton Medder will be the man responsible for keeping him safe.
Analysis: The battles between returning USM defensive ends Henderson and Chatelain who will go against Trautwein and Medder figure to be the key for the Gators offensively. If Traut and Medder have a solid outing this one could get ugly. Merrill is solid, but has not played at this level. Furthermore, Merrill will be going against the most experienced part of the Florida defense.
Rover Brandon Sumrall (5-11 195) is the leader of the Southern Miss secondary. Sumrall finished behind the Coley twins on the tackles list. The junior will be starting his third season as a starter in the Golden Eagles secondary. Sumrall has a tremendous combination of speed and is a punishing hitter. He is one of the best safeties in the country.
Starting alongside him in the backfield is junior LeVance Richmond (5-11 200). The former Lake Wales (Fla) product starred at Pearl River Community College where he helped them win the national championship, earned first team All-American honors, and led the nation with 13 interceptions two years ago. Richmond redshirted last season after transferring to Southern Miss.
The Golden Eagles have a returning cornerback in senior Caleb Hendrix (5-10 185) who mans the boundary corner. The senior is a two year starter who possesses a lot of speed and quickness. Hendrix tied for the team lead with six breakups last season. Fellow senior Jasper Faulk has played extensively over the past three seasons. He has not tallied many starts, because he has struggled at times in coverage, lacking consistency. Faulk is dangerous when he makes plays though. He has a lot of athleticism.
Analysis: There is no question that the Gators are loaded at wide receiver. Furthermore, Chris Leak seemed much more at ease this August as opposed to last August. With so many veterans, Florida’s skill positions players really only need to answer the typical opening day questions. Do Chris Leak and the Florida receivers have their timing down? When Tim Tebow enters the game will he be so pumped that he overthrows the ball (like many freshmen) and makes a mistake? Will somebody emerge at tailback?
Final Wrap-up: The Golden Eagles defense has athleticism, speed, and quickness. However, they lack the overall experience and depth. That depth would sure come in handy when the Gators send Baker, Caldwell, Cornelius, and Harvin into the secondary. The questions should regarding the Florida offensive line should be answered this weekend. Jeff Bower is an outstanding football coach. He may not be able to match up in experience, overall talent, and in most areas quality depth. But, he’ll give you his best shot.
His best formula for success is to mix it up. They’ll have to blitz Chris Leak to test the offensive front. They’ll also have to see if Leak and his receivers are on the same page and have their timing down, which means dropping several into coverage. However, I’m not convinced they have the personnel to do that very often. This is a good opening season test for the Gators.