USM preview: Golden Eagles have shown few signs of flight in ’21

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Southern Miss Golden Eagles

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DEFENSE

The 3-3-5 base, with an outside linebacker that can also rush as a defensive end, has become popular with a lot of teams, Southern Miss being one of those. As stated previously, the Golden Eagles have done a fantastic job shutting down opponents’ running games, although USM has struggled in pass defense (60th in raw pass defense, 80th in efficiency defense). Alabama will use its 3-4 over/under scheme, although an overall ranking of 41st right now has some fans uncomfortable.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The Golden Eagles are 40th in sacks and 19th in tackles for loss, good numbers that look a bit inflated given the competition USM has played. The other concern is that USM has played “small” so far, going with a two-DL, two-DE/OLB look that mimics Alabama’s rabbit alignment. Inside, Tahj Sykes and Eriq Kitchen both have plenty of size for interior tackles, but the Golden Eagles lack an appropriately-sized defensive end to pair them with. Michael Pleas Jr., listed as a linebacker, has been filling that role even though he’s on the small side. Josh Ratcliff will rotate with the starters at tackle; he’s shorter than most defensive linemen (5’11” tops) but has been surprisingly effective against both running backs and quarterbacks. Depth has always been a sore spot at USM along both lines of scrimmage, but Dashawn Crawford, Andrew Cole, Kristin Booth and Dominic Quewon will all get time there.

Alabama will likely continue to start and D.J. Dale at tackle, with Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe splitting time at end. made a brief return against Florida and may get some more work here. Jamil Burroughs is primed to be the next man up at tackle/end, while Tim Smith and Stephon Wynn Jr. bolster the middle. Jah-Marien Latham might also get some work in this game. On paper, this is Alabama all the way, but then the game tape rolls and Southern Miss has been more effective up front. Again, strength of competition has to be factored in, and Alabama’s superior depth at end also has to be taken into account. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Alabama is coming off a Florida game in which its outside linebackers had some of their best career games, while the inside linebackers, aside from a scattering of highlights, were largely rendered non-factors. Will Anderson Jr. and Drew Sanders will again start from the outside positions, with the primary backup. It will be interesting to see if Alabama works in King Mwikuta, Dallas Turner, Keanu Koht or Quandarrius Robinson this week given Nick Saban’s comments on certain defenders – Will Anderson specifically – having too much of a workload against Florida. Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o will start inside, but will end up playing some as well.

USM’s best linebacker is probably its combo OLB/DE, Josh Carr Jr. Santrell Latham will start at weakside linebacker. The question is whether Averie Habas or Hayes Maples will start at middle linebacker, as both have logged starts thus far. USM’s linebackers have good size – they’re bigger, actually, than the ones Alabama faced in its opener against Miami – and they are schemed aggressively. The big question here is whether Harris and To’o To’o bounce back from their Florida effort. If they do, Alabama has far superior depth and better talent as well. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
This has been the weak spot of the USM defense so far, and it’s not like Southern Miss has been facing the likes of Don Coryell. Jay Stanley, Malik Shorts and Camron Harrell will start at the three safety positions in USM’s base nickel, while Eric Scott Jr. will start at one of the cornerback positions. Rachuan Mitchell started at the other cornerback spot for the first two games, but didn’t play against Troy and was replaced by Natrone Brooks. Shorts and Stanley are atop the team’s tackle charts, and Shorts may be the best player on the USM defense, already racking up an astounding 6 PBUs this early in the year. USM also blitzes a good bit with its safeties, especially in run defense.

Alabama will start Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis at the corners, Malachi Moore or at the Star safety spot and then, there are some questions. DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle started at the high safety spots against Florida, but played miserably at times. Daniel Wright is a possibility to get more time this week, or potentially Branch and Moore could get more snaps. The difference between these two units is largely one of consistency. Alabama played basically one half of bad in the secondary, against Florida, but otherwise was having a good year. With USM’s struggles more widespread, give it to Alabama. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Alabama’s special teams have quietly become … quiet. Almost relaxed. A welcome change indeed from most of Saban’s Alabama teams, where the kicking game at times looked to have been coached by P.T. Barnum. Will Reichard is having another strong year at placekicker, while had a fantastic day under pressure against Florida and appears to have locked down the punter job for the foreseeable future. and JoJo Earle continue to work at punt returner, while and Jace McClellan have settled in as the kick returners.

Southern Miss will use Briggs Bourgeois as its kicker; he’s 2-of-4 from beyond 40 yards so far and has also missed a PAT. Punter Mason Hunt is solid, and USM ranks 23rd in net punting. USM has been better than Alabama in the return game by a modest amount. We prioritize the actual kicking positions in this category and given the edge Reichard gives Alabama, it’s hard to pick it any other way. Advantage: Alabama

OVERALL

It’s a straight-8 for Alabama here, as the takes all eight position categories, but it’s not a walkover. Alabama strongly controls the OL-DL cross-matchup when its defensive line is on the field, but things get considerable tighter when USM has the ball. On top of that, USM has gotten more out of its ability at both defensive line and linebacker; those categories are surprisingly close. Running back isn’t a blowout, either.

In other words, it’s the typical scrappy Southern Miss team coming to town. Southern Miss may not be what it was before programs like UAB and Troy went Division-IA and began to siphon off some of the talent USM had been able to count on in the old days, but Alabama is going to have to work for its points. The difference is likely to come down to the Golden Eagles’ struggles in scoring, as their offense lacks dynamic capabilities.

This game was always USM’s Super back in the day, and the Golden Eagles will play it just like that once again on Saturday. They just don’t have quite as much pop as they used to, and Alabama isn’t the Alabama of the Mike Shula – or even the Gene Stallings – years.

Alabama 38
Southern Miss 13

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