The Florida State Seminoles football team is riding high after their weekend victory over LSU. Up next is the home opener for the Seminoles, a matchup with Southern Miss. We’ll discuss what to expect from the Golden Eagles on this episode of the Line of Scrimmage podcast.
Each week, we’ll be speaking with members of the beat that covers FSU’s upcoming opponent, getting the nitty gritty details from those who know those teams best. This week, we’ll connect with Steve Helwick of the Underdog Dynasty. What are the strengths of Southern Miss on offense and defense? Can the Eagles compete or even upset FSU this Saturday?
Let’s jump right into what Seminole fans can expect on Saturday night. Head Coach Will Hall has been at the helm since the 2021 season. Hall started out 3-9 in his first season but had a huge turnaround in the second season, leading the Eagles to a 7-6 record. What does Hall bring to the program that has helped propel the early success for the Eagles?
He’s really a good energetic coach, and what he wanted to bring back was kind of Southern Miss’ old reputation. He always says that he wants to be the best Group of Five team in America. And Southern Miss used to have a reputation back in the 90s and all of that of upsetting big name opponents. And he’s trying to bring that reputation back to the Rock where they play what was a great atmosphere. It was an FCS opponent on Saturday and they still packed that house with 30,000 there so, I think Southern Miss has been definitely been trending in the right direction. He took over a team that really struggled in the 2020 pandemic season. The Southern Miss had three different head coaches in that season alone. Just a weird season in general, but Hall’s brought stability to the program. Year one was kind of a trying time, year two got in place beat a Tulane team which finished the season in the top 10, right after Tulane beat Kansas State, so huge road win last year at Yulman Stadium. Otherwise, other than that game, he really beat the teams he was supposed to beat and lost to some of the superior opponents that he faced like Liberty and Coastal Carolina and whatnot.
But he finished 7-6, got a bowl win that that team had been looking for for a while. And now he’s leveraging all that into a new season. The Sun Belt is pretty wide open this year and I think that they’re one of the contenders in the conference.
At the helm for Southern Miss is first year starter, former Clemson walk-on, Billy Wiles. In his debut, Wiles threw for three touchdowns against Alcorn State. Hall was quoted as saying Wiles allowed the offense to have fun with multiple looks. It’s early, but is Wiles the best quarterback Hall has had in his short time at Southern Miss?
Southern Miss really hasn’t had good quarterback play in the last few years. Last year they rotated between four quarterbacks and none of them had a 60% completion percentage. Zach Wilcke who was their main guy had a nine to nine touchdown interception ratio on the season. And there were times where Southern Miss literally didn’t have a quarterback and Frank Gore Jr. would be the one having to play that position, which he threw 14 passes last year so they ran a lot of Wildcat with him last year. But getting Billy Wiles and also Holman Edwards from the transfer portal was pertinent to the team this offseason because a lot of times last year it felt like Southern Miss was a quarterback away from getting wins in those close losses and that was what can swing them into Sun Belt contention status. Billy Wiles, he had a solid debut. It wasn’t too much risky throwing from him, but he delivered. He went 21 of 28 on the day, 267 yards and a trio of touchdowns, had one interception too, but it’s a pretty good game averaging almost 10 yards per completion. Now it is FCS competition. This is the only substantial time we’ve seen him play since transferring from Clemson where he didn’t really get much playing time. So there’s still a lot to observe with him and he’s going to get a real test against the Florida State defense, which made things kind of ugly for Jayden Daniels Sunday night.
Last year’s leading receiver, Jason Brownlee was picked up by the Jets, leaving Jakarius Caston as the next man up. Caston casually hauled in 104 yards in the first game, averaging a monster 20 yards per catch. Is Caston the receiver FSU fans should keep an eye on Saturday? Any other names to know out of this position group?
Jakarius Caston is the main guy and now with a strong foundation of quarterback play Southern Miss can finally get a 1000-yard receiver. Brownlee was pretty good last year, but I think the lack of having a reliable passing game really limited Southern Miss and what the receivers were capable of doing. But I think that Caston this year could become Southern Miss’ first major wide receiver since Quez Watkins, who’s a member of the Philadelphia Eagles did in 2019. He has a lot of tools in his bag. He’s pretty fast and slippery receiver but I think they have a couple other options.
Latreal Jones is someone who I’ve looked at, he had three catches for 68 yards last week. And then another one is Ti Mims. Ti Mims was one of the supporting cast receivers last year with almost 400 yards receiving and the thing about Southern Miss’ receivers is they’ve always had pretty good receiving averages but don’t feel like it’s a team that targets the deep ball a lot. I feel like they’re a team that gets a lot of receiver screens and good blocking on those receiver screens which they’re able to turn into significant gains. You’ll see Southern Miss run a lot of receiver screens to these guys and try to get some yardage. But the problem is Florida State is a super fast sideline-to-sideline defense. So some of those may be hard to come by on this defense and Will Hall’s acknowledged that. He said that they played Alabama two years ago and 2021 didn’t have a pretty result there. But he thinks that this Florida State team is as good if not better than the 2021 Alabama team he faced. He’s very impressed with what Florida State brings to all elements of the field.
Touching on the offensive line briefly. This is a group that is mixing experience in Matt Ryals, John Bolding, and Briason Mays with inexperience at the other spots. How will this group hold up on Saturday?
To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to hold up very well. They allowed four sacks to an FCS team in their first game and that’s never a promising sign. Conversely, they didn’t dominate the trenches either on the other side, getting zero sacks on Alcorn State. So the amount of pressure that Alcorn State was able to put on Southern Miss makes me pretty concerned for Southern Miss on Saturday, especially when you’re going up against Jared Verse, one the best pass rushers in the country. You have Kalen DeLoach another guy who’s shown capabilities of getting to the quarterback so I think that Florida State’s really going to dominate in the trenches. And that’s also a problem with Southern Miss because they’re a very run heavy team. I know Frank Gore Jr. kind of got a rest in that first game, because they were going to beat Alcorn State they could experiment have a little more fun with the offense, tried to break Billy Wiles in. Frank Gore Jr. is the backbone of the team, so the offensive line really needs to pave some good pathways for him because if they can’t get Frank Gore Jr. going in the run game, it’s going to be a long day for the Golden Eagles.
Finally on offense, the name that all Seminole fans know, it’s running back Frank Gore Jr, yes the son of that Frank Gore. The star of last year’s team, Gore rushed for over 1300 yards last season. What makes Gore so special for the Golden Eagles?
He has so much stamina. Like he feels like the same player in the first quarter as the fourth quarter. We saw that when he set a bowl record rushing performance last year in the LendingTree Bowl against Rice, getting 329 yards on 16 yards per carry, and two touchdowns in that bowl and Frank Gore Jr., he’s not exactly the fastest guy just like his dad wasn’t the fastest running back, but he’s a great tackle breaker. He shows just great vision and awareness on the field, which translates to his game when he’s playing quarterback out of the Wildcat spot too.
And he’s really good at finding a lane and just going through it. And I think that Frank Gore Jr. is a future NFL back, he’s definitely the real deal. Now how’s he going to hold up behind this offensive line going against Jared Verse, Tatum Bethune who suplex slammed Jayden Daniels last week, and this talented defense? I don’t know how Frank Gore Jr. is going to handle this opponent because it’s definitely a challenging one. I know against Alabama in 2021 he only had nine carries for seven yards. So these teams can be very challenging, but that doesn’t take away for what Frank Gore Jr. is really able to accomplish when he’s on, when he’s playing Sun Belt opponents on a weekly basis, or when he’s in bowl season. Florida State’s just something else right now that I’m not sure how well Southern Miss is going to be able to establish a running game — but if they can, that is definitely a good sign for the offensive line and Gore Jr.
This defense was one of the best last year when it came to living in the opposing team’s backfield. They recorded over 100 tackles for loss but Dominic Quewon is gone and Averie Habas is unfortunately out due to a heart procedure. Can the Nasty Bunch still generate the necessary pressure this year and if so, who will step up to fill the void?
What’s interesting is if you look at the first game, it was kind of the opposite of what we became used to Southern Miss last year. Southern Miss last year was a very good run defense. They were penetrating the backfield — not as good as a passing defense. But in their opening game this year, we kind of saw the opposite transpire. Last year they only allowed 3.7 yards per carry, but Alcorn State, FCS team, was able to get 6.3 yards per carry and 182 yards in that game. So they do need people to replace those names that you mentioned in the front seven, and I think that Jalil Clemons, Swayze Bozeman, some of the outside linebackers are going to really need to step up, both as run stoppers and as pass rushers. Bozeman is a guy who has been with the program for a long time. He’s been a key contributor ever since the 2019 season. He’s going to be someone who really needs to step up.
Conversely, the past defense was as good as it could have been against Alcorn State. They allowed zero first half passing yards, they got two interceptions, so I’m very excited on the direction of this past defense. They got some transfers leading in the secondary, they got Jay Stanley back and I think that Southern Miss can really build something special on the back end this year.
Jay Stanley is an absolute ball hawk at the safety spot. He picked off two against Alcorn State after securing five interceptions last season. He’s one of the team’s leading tacklers, Mr. Do everything for this defense. Fans should know his name but is it Stanley or bust in the secondary? Or does Southern Miss have the ability to match up with the Seminoles receivers?
Stanley is the head of the snake. He had two interceptions. And if you watch those interceptions, those weren’t deflected balls that went straight into his hands or being in an opportune position. He fought for those interceptions. Those were spectacular diving grabs where his body ended up on the ground at the end of the play, where it was just acrobatic snags. And that’s the thing with Stanley, you never know where it’s safe to throw because he can always just make a spectacular play on the ball. That’s why he had five interceptions last year. That’s why he was on all- Sun Belt. And he’s everywhere. I mean, he’s a great tackler too. So he’s going to be big in zone coverage this week.
They’re starting two transfer cornerbacks this year. MJ Daniels, he’s 6’2-6’3-type cornerback which is going to be useful for Florida State’s super tall receivers. Week one they showed a lot vs. Alcorn State but I mean with FSU, outside of Washington and maybe Ohio State, this might be the best receiving corps in the country
Finally, what’s your thoughts on Saturday’s game? Can Southern Miss channel that Brett Favre magic?
I’m going to say no, and it won’t even be as close as the Independence Bowl in 2017. Florida State was a team that I had preseason in my College Football Playoff. I was at that Cheez-It Bowl, last year. I saw what this team was capable of, what they returned. Jordan Travis is just a remarkable story — we see so many of these Heisman candidates, these Bryce Youngs or even Johnny Manziels where it clicked with them right away. But we saw Jordan Travis go through the struggles and to get to where he is now a Heisman candidate, one of the top quarterbacks in the country. It’s really cool to see that development. So I think that Travis can take this offense. And I think he can do whatever he wants, basically, on Saturday. Southern Miss, I mean, they showed good signs on defense in the opener, but Florida State’s just a different animal this year.