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Tracy Lampley

Southern Miss wide receiver Tracy Lampley is a dangerous multi-purpose threat for the Golden Eagles.

Stiff competition

Southern Miss is well-known for its reputation of playing any team, any time, anywhere. This is the Golden Eagles’ third trip to Lincoln — they’re 1-1 at Memorial Stadium, with a 21-17 victory in 2004 and a 20-13 loss to a fourth-ranked Nebraska team in 1999.

The nonconference schedule this season is daunting. Southern Miss also hosts Louisville, the preseason favorite in the Big East, and traditional BCS-buster Boise State in back-to-back games in Hattiesburg.

Johnson’s debut

Ellis Johnson didn’t coach in the Capital One Bowl, but his South Carolina defense held Nebraska scoreless after the first quarter in the Gamecocks’ 30-13 victory. Johnson wasn’t there because he’d just been hired as head coach at Southern Miss, where he’d spent two seasons as defensive coordinator in the 1980s.

Johnson’s been a collegiate coach for 30 years. He’s been a head coach at The Citadel (2001-03) and Gardner Webb (1983). He’s also been defensive coordinator at Appalachian State (1984), Clemson (1995-96), Alabama (1997-200), Mississippi State (2004-07) and South Carolina (2008-11).

Foundation of success

Say this about the Golden Eagles: They’re used to winning. Southern Miss has 18 consecutive winning seasons, and is one of 12 programs that has appeared in 10 straight bowl games. Southern Miss is 2-3 all-time against Big Ten teams (not counting Nebraska). Both wins came against Illinois.

Golden Eagles on offense

Formation: Spread

Offense Averages Nat. rank
Points 36.8 14
Total yards 461.3 17
Rushing yards 205.1 20
Passing yards 256.2 34

Southern Miss enters its season opener at Nebraska in a rather precarious situation at quarterback. None of the top three signal-callers on the depth chart has taken a snap in a college game.

The starter, redshirt junior Chris Campbell, last played in a game his senior season of high school in 2008. He’s been the backup to three-year starter Austin Davis, who led the nation’s No. 17 overall offense last season. Campbell, primarily a passing quarterback, has battled shoulder injuries through his career, and missed three days of fall camp with a bruised shoulder.

Offensive coordinator Steve Buckley said redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd and true freshman Anthony Alford could also play, with the game situation dictating that decision. Both of the backups are regarded as more athletic quarterbacks who possess more scrambling ability than Campbell.

The good news: Those inexperienced quarterbacks will operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters.

The Golden Eagles will rely heavily on a trio of running backs — senior Desmond Johnson, junior Jeremy Hester and junior Kendrick Hardy. Johnson missed seven games last season with a knee injury, and Hardy sat the final nine games with a shoulder injury. Combined, they’ve rushed for nearly 2,500 career yards.

Watch out for the versatile Tracy Lampley, who has more than 3,000 career all-purpose yards. He’s among six receivers returning who caught at least 10 passes last season.

Golden Eagles on defense

Formation: 4-2-5

Defense Averages Nat. rank
Points 20.7 26
Total yards 343.0 29
Rushing yards 118.5 24
Passing yards 224.5 62

First-year defensive coordinator Tommy West will utilize a 4-2-5 scheme that includes a position labeled Bandit — a player who can either get down in a stance as a defensive lineman, or be used as a linebacker. It’s similar to how Nebraska used Cameron Meredith at times last season.

And if you hear the term Spur, that’s the label Southern Miss coaches give to their fifth defensive back.

Regardless the terminology, Southern Miss is an effective, opportunistic defense. That’s no different than their last two trips to Lincoln, when they held the Huskers to one offensive touchdown in 1999, and returned an interception for a touchdown in 2004.

Last season, the Golden Eagles broke an FBS record with eight interceptions returned for touchdowns. Junior defensive back Deron Wilson, who’s started 27 career games, has three career interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Safety Jacorius Cotton and defensive end Jamie Collins are the top returning tacklers, with 98 stops each. Southern Miss must replace two linebackers, though, with junior Alan Howze and junior college transfer Dylan Reda topping the preseason depth chart.

Golden Eagles on special teams

Southern Miss is just as opportunistic on special teams as it is on defense. The Golden Eagles last season had four special teams touchdowns, scoring off three blocked punts and one blocked field goal. Emmanuel Johnson, who had one of those blocks, returns.

Senior Peter Boehme returns at punter and has a career 40.1-yard punting average over three seasons. He has 30 career punts of 50 yards or more yards, with a career long of 63 yards. Of his 120 career punts, 61 have landed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

Redshirt sophomore Corey Acosta has only one career appearance at place kicker. He subbed last season for injured starter Danny Hrapmann and made field goals of 25 and 42 yards in Southern Miss’ first game.

Reach Brian Rosenthal at 402-473-7436 or brosenthal@journalstar.com. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBR.

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