HATTIESBURG — The 2010 season rests in the arms of the Southern Miss defense — and if the unit that returns eight starters from last season is successful, the Golden Eagles should challenge for the Conference USA East championship.
The burden of reclaiming the Southern Miss defensive glory days that featured NFL players such as Adalius Thomas falls on the shoulders of coordinator Todd Bradford, in his third year.
Middle linebacker Korey Williams (121 tackles) and outside linebacker Ronnie Thornton (114 tackles) are the top returners on a defense that struggled last season. Southern Miss allowed 25.8 points per game and 392.5 yards per game last season.
The Golden Eagles, however, led the nation in caused fumbles (28) and finished No. 18 in sacks (34).
“We were not happy with the way we finished last year,” Bradford said. “I think this defense has a chip on their shoulder. They know about the defensive tradition at Southern Miss. This group also knows what I want and that (tradition) is our blue print.”
Bradford, who came to Southern Miss from Oklahoma State with coach Larry Fedora, takes the blame for a unit that allowed opponents to score 86 percent of the time in the red zone last season.
“It’s part of the game that we are in,” Bradford said. “It’s part of the Internet age and part of being a football coach. The game used to be about winning and losing. But stats are important to people now. All we want to do is win football games, which is the most important thing.”
“Whether it’s fair or not, that is the way it is as a football coach,” said Fedora, 14-12 in two seasons at Southern Miss. “(Bradford) is in charge of the defense and that’s his responsibility This year, we feel the defense will be much improved and the strength of our team.”
With the season opener against South Carolina on Thursday, Bradford is ready — even though the Golden Eagles are 14-point underdogs.
“In college football, the players are better in their third season,” Bradford said. “The third year is where things start to click and that’s where I feel we are right now. We have great kids who want to work hard.
“I am not making any excuses, and I will take the blame. But I also think progress is being made. We’ll find out a lot at South Carolina.”