When an irresistible force meets an immoveable object- things are bound to get interesting. The Golden Eagles fly into Gainesville with four returning starters along its offensive front, a few talented veteran receivers, and a running game. Florida counters with a solid defensive front seven and plenty of athleticism in the secondary.
Okay, the Southern Miss offense is not exactly irresistible. Nor have the Gators proven to be immoveable. But, Jeff Bower always has them ready. USM is very good. Many of them have played a lot of football and they’re always up for a contest against teams from the Southeastern Conference.
The Big Nasties
The Southern Miss offensive line returns largely intact with only sophomore right tackle Ryan McKee (6-6 286) as the newcomer among the starters. Right guard George Batiste (6-5 300) is the leader of the group. Batiste is easily the most physically dominating member of the squad. The senior was redshirted as a freshman and earned a starting position the following spring. In fact, he has started all 35 games of his collegiate career and did not allow a sack last season. Batiste is on the Outland Award List.
Redshirt senior center Robbie D’Angelo (6-2 280) saw considerable action as a sophomore before taking over as a full-time starter last season in which he too didn’t allow a sack. D’Angelo is on the Rimington Watch List.
Left guard Travis Cooley (6-2 295) started nine games before injuring his patella tendon last season against Memphis. He sat out the entire spring, but has been cleared to play this fall. Cooley is also a redshirt senior who has started 26 games in his USM career. He allowed only one sack last season. Like Batiste and D’Angelo, he too was named to several pre-season all-conference teams. Left tackle Chris Clark (6-5 295) started all 12 games last season, after playing in 10 games the previous year. Clark allowed only 3.5 sacks in 2005.
Florida counters with an unusual amount of experience themselves along the defensive front. Nose guard Marcus Thomas, end/tackle Ray McDonald, tackle Joe Cohen, and linebackers Brandon Siler, and Earl Everett have each started at least two years. Tackle Steven Harris and Brian Crum have also played a lot of football the past two years, with Harris having several starts. Defensive ends Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey got their feet wet last year- as did defensive tackle Clint McMillan.
The Gators have one glaring weakness- health. Each of the starters has missed time with injuries or rehabilitating old injuries. If they can get some much needed continuity, they could be among the nation’s best. They should be among the nation’s best.
Analysis: The Golden Eagles averaged 111.3 yards per game rushing behind this group last season. They were even better in pass protection, allowing just 15 sacks in 409 passing attempts for 122 yards. Three of these returning linemen (Batiste, D’Angelo, and Cooley) combined to account for a single sack. Yes, one sack. Returning left tackle Travis Cooley allowed 3.5.
Cooley hasn’t faced Jarvis Moss, who is without question among the quickest defensive ends he has ever seen. The quickness of the Florida line should provide some problems for the Golden Eagles. When they blitz- it should force USM quarterback Jeremy Young to make mistakes and that’s when things could get ugly.
Southern Mississippi’s quarterback derby didn’t quite go as expected. Stephen Reaves (6-1 210) spent much of the spring still trying to return from a knee injury suffered while running the scout team last fall. Reaves limited mobility bolstered Jeremy Young’s grip on the starting job. He stamped his name atop the depth chart with a solid performance in the Golden Eagles spring game. Young (6-3 215) did nothing to lose his place since practice resumed in August.
Young has played sparingly the past two seasons. He saw action in six games, including one start in 2004 and participated in only 30 plays last year. Young has completed 23 of 55 for 275 yards. He has not thrown a touchdown pass, while lofting two interceptions. He is most dangerous running the football.
The Golden Eagles will take the season opener with most of their key skills position players in the huddle. That should be of tremendous comfort for Young. All three of their top receivers from one year ago return. Tight end Shawn Nelson, flanker Josh Barnes, and split end Anthony Perine combined for 98 receptions and 12 touchdowns- while accounting for nearly half (48.7%) of the Golden Eagles reception yards per game.
Nelson is a big target who thrives making receptions over the middle. Barnes has the quickness and is the big playmaker. Perine is among the fastest on the squad and runs very disciplined routes. Senior Damion Carter has speed, quickness, and playmaking ability. However, he doesn’t have much experience. Like Florida’s Cornelius Ingram, Carter began his career at quarterback and moved because of inability to lock down the position and the potential his tremendous athleticism afforded elsewhere.
Leading rushers Larry Thomas (647) and Cody Hull (542) to add yet another enticing element for coach Jeff Bowers and his Golden Eagles. They will split time at running back with heralded freshman Damion Fletcher (5-10 176). Thomas and Hull have both proven adept at catching the ball out of the backfield as well. Big fullback Bobby Weakley (5-10 245) rarely gets many touches (averages one per game), but he can open a hole.
The Gators secondary received a big boost with the transfer of Ryan Smith, who will get the start this Saturday. Opposite corner Reggie Lewis has some experience and demonstrated solid play, including his heroism as the Gators edged Vanderbilt last season. Returning free safety Reggie Nelson and strong safety Tony Joiner figure to provide steady play in the back of the Florida defense.
Analysis: Young is an athlete playing quarterback. He simply doesn’t have the experience throwing the football that a quarterback needs to lead his team to an upset victory against a stellar defense. Don’t be surprised to see Stephen Reaves come off of the bench in this one.
Returning free safety Reggie Nelson could have a big opening day. He is a playmaker and Young has not been impressive throwing the football.
Final Wrap-up: The Golden Eagles have to effectively run the football if they want to pull off the season opening upset. Why? USM coach Jeff Bower knows that he has to limit the opportunities Florida senior quarterback Chris Leak and the loaded Gators receiving corps have to pick apart his inexperienced defense. Secondly, Southern Miss quarterback Jeremy Young hasn’t the experience or the ability at this stage of the season to pass the Golden Eagles back into the game should they fall behind early. Furthermore, when healthy, the Gators front seven is hardly a group that teams can hope to have measured success against, let alone dominate. And finally- “The Swamp” with an aggressive, experienced defense is no place for a quarterback to get on the job experience.