By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — The first time Southern Miss quarterback Chris Campbell took the practice field for first-year coach Ellis Johnson, it wasn’t the new terminology, new drills or new assistant coaches that bothered him.
It was the silence.
“You could hear the birds chirping,” Campbell said with a laugh. “It was really weird. But if that’s the toughest part of this transition, than I guess we’re doing pretty well.”
Former coach Larry Fedora — who took the North Carolina job in December — would crank up rap or rock music at window-rattling decibel levels during practice, but Johnson put his foot down on that tradition. The loudest noises you hear these days are the popping of pads or Johnson’s voice offering a harsh critique of the previous play.
It’s one of the few changes for the Golden Eagles as Johnson navigates through his first set of spring drills. The Southern Miss football program wasn’t broken when he inherited it, coming off an 11-3 record that included a Conference USA championship and Hawaii Bowl victory, so the 60-year-old coach isn’t doing anything drastic.
But he is putting his own stamp on the Golden Eagles as they prepare to defend their conference title next fall.
That doesn’t mean an entirely new offense or defense. It does mean a slight change in philosophy to a more hard-nosed brand of football.
“I want to be a certain style of offense and a certain style of defense,” Johnson said “I want a certain temperament. I want to be known for something as a team. To me, it’s going extremely well.”
Under Fedora, the Golden Eagles were known for their wide-open offense and freewheeling defense. Both sides of the ball were apt to make spectacular plays, but they were also prone to make spectacular mistakes.
Johnson would like to lessen that risk-reward ratio, concentrating on a power running game on offense and fundamental tackling on defense. But he also doesn’t want the Golden Eagles to lose their fearless edge that made them so tough to beat last season when they knocked off heavily-favored Houston in the C-USA title game and finished the season as the nation’s 20th-ranked team.
Johnson — along with new offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle and defensive coordinator Tommy West — have been busy this spring trying to mesh their philosophy with what the Golden Eagles already possess.
Sometimes that means swallowing egos and making the best decision for this set of personnel.
“It’s cute to go up there and draw it on the board,” Johnson said. “But if you’ve got a bunch of guys and they’re not good man-cover guys and you want to run a man blitz every other play, then that’s not very smart. If you want to throw 60 times a game, but you don’t have a guy that’s accomplished enough to do that, then that’s not very smart.”
The Southern Miss offense has plenty of personnel returning, including running back Kendrick Hardy and four of five starting offensive linemen. But the Golden Eagles will have at least one important change — someone must take over for quarterback Austin Davis, who leaves with almost every school passing record.
Campbell has the inside track to the starting job. The redshirt junior has learned for more than three years behind Davis.
“Austin was a fabulous quarterback and a great friend,” Campbell said. “It’s big shoes to fill. But I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare in the film room and how to handle the huddle. Obviously, with a new coaching staff it makes things a little different, but we’ve kept a lot of things the same.
“As the coaches say, we just try to get one percent better every day.”
Campbell’s is competing for the job with redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd and sophomore Arsenio Favor, though Favor recently suffered a knee injury and likely won’t be cleared for full contact until the fall.
The defense returns several starters as well, including linebacker Jamie Collins and cornerback Deron Wilson. The Golden Eagles are still running a package similar to the 4-2-5 formation that improved the team’s defense last season.
“There’s a few changes in terminology, but defense is defense,” Wilson said. “The tempo’s still full speed on and off the field.”
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: (at)davidbrandtAP