By Al Jones/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG – A key to the run by Southern Miss to the 2011 Conference USA football championship was senior leadership.
The Golden Eagles posted a 12-2 record that included a Hawaii Bowl win under former coach Larry Fedora.
The title run featured Austin Davis, a four-year starter at quarterback along with linebacker Ronnie Thornton and defensive end Cordarro Law, all fifth-year seniors.
Southern Miss took its first step toward defending that title Monday as spring drills opened under new coach Ellis Johnson.
The priorities for Johnson include finding playmakers to replace Davis, Thornton and Law.
Replacing at quarterback Davis likely will be either sophomore Arsenio Favor of Montgomery, Ala., or redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd of Concord, Calif. It could even be freshman Anthony Alford of Petal, a key signee from this season’s freshman class.
Favor played in seven games last year but completed only 1 of 3 passes for eight yards. Now the Golden Eagles must adapt to new offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle and defensive coordinator Tommy West.
“When you have lose a fifth-year senior, and a four-year starter at quarterback, you lose a lot of leadership and skills,” Johnson said. “Our quarterback starter next year will be a redshirt freshman, a young man who is still in high school or a player (Favor) who threw three passes last season. But we do have some talent at that position, too.
“Keep in mind that the NCAA allows 15 (spring) workouts. We are a new staff and that means we still have to find out which players, on both sides of the ball, that will help us.”
Southern Miss is expected to run the spread offense in 2012 with a few wrinkles or variations from a year ago.
“The spread is no longer the innovation, it’s the norm. We won’t get away from that, but I’m sure we’ll put our special brand on it,” Johnson said.
Defensively, the Golden Eagles must replace Thornton, who had a team-high 111 tackles, and Law, who recorded 65 tackles, including 19.5 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks.
The unit will return end Jamie Collins. He had 98 tackles last season with 22 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks.
Southern Miss, which ran the 4-2-5 look under Fedora in the title season, will use the same look under West, the former Memphis head coach. He was the defensive coordinator at UAB last season. The Blazers were the only C-USA team to beat Southern Miss in 2011.
“Tommy West knows the tradition we have at Southern Miss,” Johnson said. “He was at UAB last year and spent many years as the head coach at Memphis. He knows Conference USA pretty good and he knows the talent we have back.
“We all know the tradition that Southern Miss has and we’re ready to get to work.”