Fall camp opens at USM with quarterback battle, deep roster taking center stage

Will Hall believes he’s got his best team yet.
The third-year head coach at Southern Miss made that clear at Sun Belt media days when a reporter pointed out he has “arguably” his most talented roster and Hall quickly quipped: “Not arguably.”
That theme returned Tuesday when USM opened fall camp with a two-man quarterback race and a roster packed with the full allotment of 85 scholarship players.
“You can see the depth in our program, the way we practice was a lot better last year than year one and we’ve taken another step going into year three,” Hall said after practice.
The Golden Eagles are coming off a 7-6 season that ended in a bowl win over Rice. This time around, Hall has two transfer quarterbacks battling for the first snap, a running back room Hall says is the deepest he’s had at any school and a defense that features a wealth of depth in the front seven.
But USM hasn’t arrived at Hall’s intended destination yet. Until the team lines up against Alcorn State on Sept. 2, expectations will remain just that: expectations.
Here are three burning questions for which Hall hopes to have answers in 2023:
Will USM finally get consistent QB play?
Southern Miss’ quarterback woes are no secret. Hall is a quarterback’s coach at heart and holds the primary role in running the offense, including calling the plays.
His answer to inconsistent play at the most important position on the field will lie in the arm of either Clemson transfer Billy Wiles or Houston transfer Holman Edwards.
According to Hall, both have the qualities necessary to unlock his offense’s potential.
“Number one, accuracy, I don’t think you can create that once I get them,” Hall said. “Two is toughness, both mental and physical. You can’t create that once I get them, you can add to it. And then number three, the way they treat people around them... They’ve already moved in with several O-linemen, that’s how quick they were able to latch on to people and people to take to them.”
Southern Miss was 11th in the Sun Belt in passing a year ago and had the worst interception-to-pass attempt ratio in the league. The Eagles also have to replace star receiver Jason Brownlee.
The good news? USM returns four starters along the offensive line, and one of the premier backs in the Group of Five in Frank Gore Jr.
“Super talented (skill group), we’re going to win a lot of games with them,” Wiles said. “They can go make plays when we need them too and they will. I’m excited to see that.”
Senior receiver Jakarius Caston will slide outside this season, allowing last year’s freshman phenom Ty Mims to own the slot. Brandon Hayes has repeatedly drawn praise from coaches and quarterbacks for his speed and playmaking ability and is back after missing all of last season with an injury.
Hayes will be battled by Latreal “Frog” Jones and Tyquan Henderson, who has been running with the first team. Edwards says Henderson “can catch anything” with his 6-foot-3 frame.
Can the defense withstand secondary losses?
Newly minted defensive coordinator Dan O’Brien has an experienced front seven that produced the third-most tackles for loss in the country last year.
The defensive backfield is manned by All-Conference selection Jay Stanley at safety, but three new starters need to emerge between both corner spots and at the boundary safety position.
“We did lose a lot of starters and players, but when you look at Michael Caraway, Brendan Toles, they’ve made a lot of plays for this program in big moments,” Hall said. “Then you add somebody like MJ Daniels and Ques McNeal, really highly recruited kids.
“Then you talk about Jay Jones, Markel McLaurin, adding Dylan Lawrence, Elijah Sabbatini and Cam Knox. Those are really talented kids. Are we inexperienced? Yes. But do we have talent? Yes. We got to coach them up and get them ready to play.”
Edwards and Wiles have worked against the new-look secondary through the spring and have a first-hand look at the group’s progression.
“I think they are playing good,” Edwards said of the defensive backs. “They made some plays today. It’s definitely not easy for us. I think they’re matching up well with our guys.”
Is the roster ready for a full season?
A 42-14 home loss to Georgia State began USM’s midseason swoon that ended in a three-game November losing streak.
This season’s slate won’t do the Eagles any favors, either. Along with non-conference games against Florida State, Mississippi State and Tulane, the back half of the schedule is loaded with road trips to contending teams in South Alabama, Appalachian State and Louisiana.
The cherry on top is a home finale against reigning conference champion Troy.
Hall’s confidence in his roster to withstand a grueling schedule can be gleaned from the lone absence on day one of fall camp: outside linebacker Averie Habas. The senior is out with an undisclosed medical condition, but Hall remains pleased with the depth at his position.
“Habas is not here and we still got Josh Carr, Jahlil Clemons and Tre’Mon Henry,” Hall said. “Year one, we would’ve been playing somebody out there that couldn’t start at Jeff Davis County. That’s encouraging. If somebody goes down, there’s a real college football player to replace him.”
Southern Miss will debut the anticipated third version of Hall’s Golden Eagles against the Braves on Sept. 2. The contest will kick at 6 p.m. and be aired on ESPN+.

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