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Southern Miss offense a mix of youth, experience

HUNTINGTON -- The first thing to know about the retooling Southern Mississippi offense is this: The quarterback and coaching staff may be new, but quite a bit of last year's cast remains the same.

And the 2010 cast, to some degree. In fact, a few Golden Eagles span three head coaching eras, sort of.

"I committed under Coach [Jeff] Bower," said center Austin Quattrochi. "So yeah, I've been here awhile."

After the iconic Bower left Southern Miss following the 2007 season, Quattrochi was re-recruited by the incoming staff of Larry Fedora, and is now one of six fifth-year seniors on the offensive depth chart under new coach Ellis Johnson. On a team otherwise dominated by youth, the offensive line is the veteran unit, carrying 106 career starts.

Southern Miss takes on Marshall at 7 p.m. EDT Saturday at M.M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. CBS Sports Network (Channel 512 on Suddenlink cable in the Kanawha Valley) will air the game.

Quattrochi, a Rimington Award watch candidate, will be starting his 21st game in a row, left guard Joe Duhon his 26th straight and left tackle Jason Weaver his 18th in a row. For all the Eagles' troubles in an 0-6 season, that unit has been strong enough to lead the rushing attack to averages of 4.1 yards per carry and 173 yards per game.

(Remember, the Eagles - 0-6, 0-2 - have not enjoyed a stat-fattening game against an FCS school.)

Only East Carolina has held the Eagles to less than 160 yards rushing (91, including minus-40 yards in sacks), and the Eagles slugged through Central Florida's well-regarded defense for 194 yards and four touchdowns.

"The offensive line, against Central Florida, did a phenomenal job," said Chris Rippon, Marshall's defensive coordinator. "They put it on their seniors. They put it on the strength of their team, their running backs are excellent and 'do what we have success with,' and they did."

The backfield, as displayed against UCF, is emblematic of youth meeting age. Fifth-year senior Desmond Johnson, who began his career backing up all-time leading Southern Miss rusher Damion Fletcher, has a 100-yard game and 410 yards for the season. Jalen Richard, one of the Eagles' 10 true freshmen who have played, broke out with 87 yards on 13 carries and two TDs against UCF.

The top four receivers are fourth-year juniors or older, led by "X" receiver Dominique Sullivan (12 receptions, 173 yards, one TD). The No. 2 receiver is Tracy Lampley, a senior who certainly never redshirted - he has terrorized defenses and special teams from the moment he hit Hattiesburg. His 93-yard kickoff return TD in November 2009 was critical to the Eagles' 27-20 win at Marshall.

He has 4,227 all-purpose yards, third on the school's all-time list, and he could become the first Eagle to gain 1,000 yards by rushing, receiving, kickoff return and punt return. He needs 34 rushing yards and 153 on punt returns, so the latter will be the tough one.

As usual, Lampley's No. 1 jersey can show up anywhere in a formation, and he can get the ball in any manner. It has to make for one of the most unusual - and frightening - video montages found in a defensive coaches' room.

"Aw, sheesh!" Rippon exclaimed. "I could have sworn he snapped the ball once. He's been everywhere, and we know that. Numbers-wise, it's not showing up [but] it'll show up Saturday."

The biggest question mark, and the most overflowing fountain of youth, is at quarterback. Anthony Alford has the lowest passer rating among the three QBs auditioned, but he's the team's No. 2 rusher after gaining 71 yards and scoring twice at UCF.

That he can throw and run won't surprise those who know he is under contract - and a lucrative one at that - with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was picked in the third round of the Major League Baseball entry draft, even after he made his intentions to play football known to all. He plans to play minor-league ball next summer.

Coach Johnson hired Alford's high school coach, Steve Buckley, to coordinate the offense, so that raised Alford's comfort level. In addition to his running at UCF, Alford fired some clutch passes into tight spots.

His third-down passing caught the eye of Herd coaches - he was 6 of 9 for 65 yards on that down, converting a third-and-11 in the first overtime. Southern Miss scored a touchdown in that period, but Alford threw an interception to end the game in the second overtime.

"He'll settle down - if he stays settled down, it's just football," Lampley said. "Being a freshman, he'll make mistakes, he's not aware. That will come with experience. If he keeps playing, he'll probably be one of the better guys in the league by the time he's a senior."

Rippon said, "He made some great throws - timing routes, pinpoint throws, really good presence in the pocket, really doesn't get flustered. But you're concerned the second he pulls the ball down, and he gets outside."

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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