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Will Hall looking for breakthrough in...

Will Hall looking for breakthrough in fourth season at Southern Miss

By: Parrish Alford - May 14, 2024

Southern Mississippi head coach Will Hall walks the sideline during an NCAA football game against Tulane on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Hattiesburg, Miss. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

  • Better control of his roster, the buzz of new coordinators, options at quarterback and stacked classes give Hall a lot of confidence heading into the summer.

Southern Miss football showed some spark at the end of Will Hall’s first season as coach in 2021.

Then the Golden Eagles went .500 in Sun Belt Conference play, won the Lending Tree Bowl to finish 7-6 overall and appeared to be on the rise.

Hall, though, knew it was a fragile success, and things would need to break right in 2023 to continue that climb.

The result was a 3-9 finish, his second in three seasons.

Now with spring drills in the rear-view mirror Hall believes things are about to change.

“If we’re not competing for the Sun Belt West championship down the stretch I’ll be extremely disappointed, and quite frankly, I probably won’t be the coach here next year,” he said.

“And that’s really the way it should be.”

Less than stellar quarterback play was the way it was in 2023 and that was a part of the problem.

Southern Miss couldn’t make enough big plays in high-scoring games against Arkansas State, Texas State and Appalachian State or the critical play with four chances from the Old Dominion 5 in the final minutes of a 17-13 loss.

“Six of those losses were one-score games deep in the fourth quarter,” Hall said. “We were inches away from being a 9-3 football team, but we weren’t. We were 3-9.”

Last year’s QB1 Billy Wiles, a Clemson transfer, is back in the portal after completing less than 54 percent 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

That’s led to an interesting three-way competition between the more mobile Ethan Crawford who eventually unseated Wiles to start the final two games, intriguing freshman John White, Mississippi’s career passing yardage leader, and Florida State transfer Tate Rodemaker.

White stands an even 6-feet tall. He compiled a career completion percentage of 70.2 with 177 total touchdowns at Madison-Ridgeland Academy.

Rodemaker, who played at Valdosta (Georgia) High School, appeared in nine games as a third-year sophomore for the Seminoles last year.

He was the starting quarterback of record when Florida State won 24-15 at Florida in November.

In Mississippi, South Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and the Florida panhandle – traditional sweet spots for Southern Miss recruiting – you can find young men who can run and catch.

If the Golden Eagles can get better production behind center they’ll stand a good chance of recovering those lost inches between 3-9 and 9-3. 

If an all-conference type gem emerges from the quarterback mix, they can do much more.

Hall said Crawford added a solid spring on top of a strong finish to last season.

“He was very explosive throughout the spring and can really run.”

But he didn’t run away with the job.

“We’re still competing at that spot. Whoever wins is going to be a good football player, I really believe,” Hall said.

Hall hired two new coordinators in the off-season – Chip Long on offense and Clay Bignell on defense.

Long, a college teammate of Hall’s at North Alabama, has been a Division I OC at four schools, most notably Notre Dame from 2017-2019 where he helped the Irish to the College Football Playoff in his second season.

Long will call the plays as he’s done many times before.

Bignell and Long crossed paths when Bignell was a defensive staff member at Notre Dame.  He was defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois last year helping the Panthers rank No. 1 in turnover margin, No. 6 in turnovers gained.

Both new coordinators have work to do. Last year the Golden Eagles were 12th in the 14-team Sun Belt in scoring offense, last in scoring defense.

They don’t face the challenges without assets. The Transfer Portal was a net gain, Hall said.

Wide receiver Larry Simmons and tight end Kyirin Heath, both from Ole Miss, and cornerback Will James from Mississippi State are names to watch.

“The Portal’s always been good for us, Mississippi kids that signed SEC or Power Five and want to come back home. We’ve done really well there,” Hall said.

You can look at key pick-ups and bright young players with potential, but perhaps the real reason for Hall’s optimism is chemistry. It’s better now, he says.

The academic situation has improved such that Hall can manage his roster differently than when he was first hired.

“When we got here as a staff, we were so far under the APR index (Academic Progress Rate) that we couldn’t really have the discipline in the program that we wanted. We couldn’t really get rid of anybody. We had to keep them to get them graduated to get our APR index above the minimum. We inherited such a depleted academic situation,” he said.

The Golden Eagles landed the No. 2 signing class in the Sun Belt, according to 247 Sports, trailing only Coastal Carolina.

“The two years before we were in the top three in the conference, and we’ve been able to keep our players for the most part,” Hall said.

Better control of his roster, the buzz of new coordinators, options at quarterback and stacked classes give Hall a lot of confidence heading into the summer.

“It’s Year Four. From the moment I got here I said, ‘We’ve got to stack three recruiting classes on top of each other that are really good, and at that point, it will be time to win. Well, that’s what we’ve done. 

“We’ve kept those players, so it’s time to win.”

About the Author(s)
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Parrish Alford

Parrish Alford brings the cumulative wisdom that comes from three decades of covering Mississippi sports to Magnolia Tribune. His outstanding contributions to sports reporting in the state have twice been recognized with Sports Writer of the Year awards. Alford currently serves as the associate editor of American Family News.