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New-look Southern Miss tries to continue winning

Associated Press Modified: August 15, 2012 at 8:19 am •  Published: August 15, 2012
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — There's a different coach and a different quarterback at Southern Miss.

Still, Golden Eagles running back Tracy Lampley said the program's winning ways will stay the same.

"We're going to be right where we want to be," Lampley said. "Every day I see us getting better. We've got some new faces and some new coaches, but this is the same Southern Miss football, so everybody's extremely confident."

Southern Miss is coming off arguably the best season in school history, a 12-win campaign that ended with a Hawaii Bowl victory over Nevada and a No. 20 national ranking. But big changes came quickly for the Golden Eagles following that success — coach Larry Fedora left for North Carolina and the school hired veteran Ellis Johnson.

Johnson couldn't be much more different than his predecessor.

The 49-year-old Fedora was brash and known for his wide-open spread offense that took plenty of chances and scored touchdowns in bunches. Johnson is 60 years old, understated and defensive-minded, known for his punishing defenses at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and Clemson.

But Johnson isn't worried about style. He's focused on leading the program to a second-straight Conference USA championship.

"We need to win Conference USA and we need to go to bowl games," Johnson said. "If we can do that on a consistent basis then we're successful."

Southern Miss should have plenty of talent to make a run at the title again, led by a deep backfield that includes Lampley, Kendrick Hardy, Desmond Johnson and Jeremy Hester. The 5-foot-9, 168-pound Lampley has been a do-it-all player throughout his career, and last season gained 463 rushing yards, 574 receiving yards and 356 punt return yards, scoring eight total touchdowns.

Lampley said he expects the running game to be the team's best area, especially early in the season. Southern Miss is trying to find a quarterback to replace four-year starter Austin Davis. The candidates are junior Chris Campbell, incoming freshman Anthony Alford and redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd.

Whoever wins the job will be tested quickly. The Golden Eagles have a difficult non-conference schedule that includes an opener at Nebraska and home games against Boise State and Louisville.

"I think there's progress (with the quarterbacks), but I also think there's a long way to go," Johnson said. Alford "is far and away the best guy with the ball in his hands as far as running. In the throwing game, each one has had his day and his moments where it's one step forward and two steps back."

Lampley wasn't too worried about the quarterback competition. He said replacing Davis — who finished with nearly every Southern Miss passing record — wouldn't be possible, but all three candidates could lead the offense.

"No matter who is at quarterback, we're going to be OK," Lampley said. "They can all do the job. And it's my job as a veteran to be there for the quarterback and provide a steady influence."

Johnson's most recent stop before coming to Southern Miss was at South Carolina, where he was the defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier. While the Southeastern Conference was full of teams with a power running game, Johnson said he's tweaking his defense for a different pace in Conference USA, which is known for wide-open passing offenses.

"That's going to make your defense a certain style — it's going to look for the big play," Johnson said. "You're going to give up some yards. But you've got to make people pay for it with turnovers."

Linebacker Jamie Collins is the Golden Eagles' leading returner. The 6-3, 239-pound senior ranked second on the team with 98 tackles, 19 1/2 tackles for a loss and 6 1/2 sacks last season. He said Johnson's vast experience would make for an unpredictable defense.

"You never know what we're going to do," Collins said. "We'll be studying the opposing team and then deciding what we can do to shut it down. We're a defense that can do all types of things."

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: (at)davidbrandtAP