On Monday, Shannon Dawson claimed that Saturday is no grudge game, as far as he’s concerned. Never mind that Dawson’s first game as Southern Miss offensive coordinator is at Kentucky, where he was fired after one year as offensive coordinator last season. Just another game, said Dawson. Treats them all the same.
And, truth be told, the pressure is on Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops to prove he made the right moves letting Dawson go and luring new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran away from Cincinnati.
Don’t be fooled., however. There’s plenty of pressure on Dawson, too, not just to beat UK, but to keep the engine humming on a USM offense that was a high-torque machine last season.
On the way to a 9-5 record under third-year head coach Todd Monken, Southern Miss averaged 39.9 points last season. That was a 20-point increase over the year before. The Golden Eagles ranked 12th nationally in total offense at 509.5 yards per game and 12th in passing offense at 329.7 yards per game. Their yards-per-play average jumped from 5.1 in 2014 to 6.9 in 2015.
Meanwhile, under Dawson, Kentucky regressed from 2014, when Neal Brown was the offensive coordinator. UK’s points-per-game average dropped from 28.2 to 24.7. Its yards-per-game average dropped from 384 to 372. Quarterback Patrick Towles went from completing 57.3 percent passes with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a sophomore to completing 56.1 percent of his passes with nine TDs and 14 picks as a junior.
While Dawson suddenly found himself out of a job, the brains behind the Southern Miss attack left for better jobs. Before Southern Miss’ trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl — the Golden Eagles lost 44-31 to Washington — Arizona State swooped in and hired away offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to replace Mike Norvell, now head coach at Memphis. A month later, just before national signing day, new Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter persuaded Monken to be his offensive coordinator. The Bucs even paid Southern Miss’ $350,000 to free Monken from his contract.
If Dawson inherited high expectations in Hattiesburg, he also inherited a star at the most important position. Senior quarterback Nick Mullens tied for fourth nationally last season in touchdown passes with 38 and ranked sixth in passing yards with 4,476. At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, he isn’t the biggest quarterback, nor does he own the strongest arm. No one questions his accuracy or his experience, however. Mullens, who started as a freshman in 2013, completed 63.5 percent of his passes last season. The analytics site Pro Football Focus recently rated the Alabama native the best quarterback in the non-Power 5 conferences.
Dawson must find Mullens a new favorite receiver. Mike Thomas, who caught 71 passes last season, was drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Rams. Thomas had a monster bowl game, catching nine Mullens passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas had catches of 23, 27, 36 and 56 yards.
Isaiah Jones, a former Florida State signee who went the junior college route, East Mississippi Community College, is running first team at one wideout spot on the Eagles’ depth chart. Allenzae Staggers, another juco transfer from East Mississippi — same school that produced ex-UK defensive end Za’Darius Smith — is also running first team. They join returnee D.J. Thompson, who caught 55 passes a year ago.
In Hattiesburg on Monday, Dawson was quick to point out that while he knew a lot about UK’s defensive coaches, they know a lot about him. Meanwhile, in Lexington, Stoops said basically the same thing.
“I have respect for Shannon Dawson or I wouldn’t have hired him,” Stoops said, adding, “You guys have seen our offense move at times and I’ve seen it move at times so he can certainly get you off balance, especially with some of the talent he has around him.”
That Southern Miss talent put up big numbers last season. Starting Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, the pressure will be on Shannon Dawson to keep that going.
Nick Mullens game-by-game in 2015