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Hopson’s task: Rebuild secondary

Southern Miss defensive back Alex Ray, right, a Warren Central graduate, keeps his eyes on Utah quarterback Alex Smith during the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Utah won the game, 17-0.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[1/8/04]MEMPHIS, Tenn. Jay Hopson’s job as Southern Miss defensive backs coach is about to get a lot tougher.

For the three years that he has held the post, Hopson and a group of four defensive backs have set the bar on a defense known nationwide for its ability to shut down opponents.

But when next season rolls around, the Vicksburg native will be working with a brand new cast. Senior Bowl players Etric Pruitt and Greg Brooks, as well as Corey Yates and former Warren Central standout Alex Ray all walked off the field for the final time after a 17-0 loss to Utah in the Liberty Bowl on New Year;s Eve.

“It’s tough,” said Ray, who had an interception in the shutout loss. “We all came in here together and now we’re leaving together.”

When Hopson joined the Southern Miss staff three years ago from Marshall, what greeted him was a young, but talented group of defensive backs.

Each brought a little something different to the Eagles’ table: Ray was the hard-hitting safety, Yates possessed blazing speed but was injury prone, Brooks was a dominating cover-corner and Pruitt played both defensive back and special teams.

“We knew early they had a lot of talent,” said Hopson, an Ole Miss grad and ex-Warren Central football player. “It was just a matter of growing together. They did a fantastic job of that.”

The group broke out in the 2002 season, allowing only six passing touchdowns best in America. That team finished fourth in pass efficiency defense and 10th in overall defense.

Pruitt was the star of that unit, collecting a team-high six interceptions to earn first-team All-Conference USA honors.

“That year we really came together as a unit,” Pruitt said. “This school is known for defense and we were proud to be a part of it. Coach came in the same time we did and made an impact real quick. We like playing for him. He’s a good coach.”

With four starters returning for the 2003 season, Hopson’s charges again excelled. The team earned a No. 12 national ranking in pass defense and three of the four players earned postseason honors.

Brooks and Pruitt earned all-conference first-team honors and Ray was a third-team selection. The team allowed a meager nine touchdown passes in 13 games.

“This has been a great ride,” said Ray, who will try his hand at landing a pro football contract when school ends. “We accomplished a lot since I’ve been here. I’m going to miss it.”

While the four defensive backs depart, Hopson will get to work on the next crop of defensive backs.

“The cupboard is not bare,” Hopson said. “We have a lot of younger guys that will have to learn the system and step in. We have some big shoes to fill, but those guys have a lot of talent.”

John Eubanks, Seth Cumbie, Trevis Coley and Jasper Faulk will battle for starting roles for the upcoming season.

“I have a lot of good memories that I will take with me,” Pruitt said. “But now it’s time to move on.”