By David Brandt/The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — It’s been a rough beginning to the Ellis Johnson era at Southern Mississippi.
The Golden Eagles have a 0-3 record for the first time since 1976 following double-digit losses to Nebraska, East Carolina and Western Kentucky.
And the problems are mounting.
The top two quarterbacks are dealing with injuries, the defense has been atrocious and the schedule doesn’t get any easier with No. 19 Louisville coming to town on Saturday.
For a proud program that’s been to bowl games in 14 of the past 15 seasons — and finished with a 12-2 record in 2011 — it is unfamiliar and sobering territory.
“I know everybody’s ready to go jump off a bridge somewhere, but we can’t do that,” Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tommy West said. “We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and try to get better every day. That’s how you pull out of it. I know that sounds simple, but really, what other option is there?”
Expectations were high for the 60-year-old Johnson when he took over the program in December following Larry Fedora’s departure to North Carolina. The former South Carolina defensive coordinator inherited a roster with several talented players — including defensive lineman Jamie Collins and receiver Tracy Lampley.
But the transition hasn’t been smooth.
Fedora was known for his innovative offensive playbook, while Johnson’s expertise comes on defense.
So far, the veteran coach and offensive-minded roster have been a bad fit. The Golden Eagles have regressed offensively while the defense hasn’t improved.
“When you’re not performing well in so many different areas, you’ve got to start back at the head coach’s feet,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to go back to square one and evaluate everything we’re doing from personnel to schemes to practice. We’ve got to see what we can come up with to improve this football team.”
The Golden Eagles have also been hit with injuries, especially at quarterback. Starter Chris Campbell (neck) and backup Anthony Alford (knee) both went down during the Western Kentucky loss. That leaves third-string quarterback Ricky Lloyd, who completed 4 of 5 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown against the Hilltoppers.
Johnson said he had “complete confidence” in Lloyd’s ability to lead the offense.
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound redshirt freshman was part of the three-man competition during preseason camp to replace four-year starter Austin Davis. Johnson has said all along that there wasn’t much separation in the talent level of the three quarterbacks.
“They’ve all been decent,” Johnson said. “They’ve all had their problems.”
Now it appears Lloyd could get his shot. Johnson didn’t rule out Campbell or Alford for Saturday’s game, but didn’t sound overly optimistic in either case.
But quarterback is far from the Golden Eagles’ only issue.
The defense gave up 560 yards against Western Kentucky just three weeks after giving up 632 yards to Nebraska. But rather than worry about the ugly numbers, Southern Miss players say they’re trying to ignore the first three games and concentrate on getting better.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have never been 0-3 in their whole careers, so we’re just trying to keep the confidence up,” Southern Miss left tackle Jason Weaver said. “… Everybody knows we’ve got a lot ahead of us. It’s just real frustrating starting off slow.”
Johnson said he can obviously sense frustration among his players, but has no complaints with how they have prepared and continue to work. Louisville coach Charlie Strong said he expects Southern Miss to be “sky-high” for Saturday’s game.
“You know, right now, that you’re getting ready to step into a beehive,” Strong said. “They will be humming. They’re going to be at their best.”
Johnson said he feels the pressure to get Southern Miss back to winning, but he’s not complaining. After nearly 40 years in coaching, he’d rather attempt to continue a winning tradition than build one from scratch.
“It’s much easier to get a program that’s used to winning back to winning when you hit a dip,” Johnson said. “… We’ve just got to keep banging away and we’ll get there.”
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