USM’s football fate rests on Brown’s health|Opinion

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 23, 2009

The key question for Southern Miss fans is this: which Golden Eagle team shows up?

Will it be the team that overcame the loss of its best player, DeAndre Brown, to a horrific broken leg to earn a come-from-behind 30-27 win over Sun Belt champion Troy in the 2008 New Orleans Bowl?

Or will it be the team that nearly bounced itself out of bowl eligibility with a five-game losing streak?

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Last season was a classic bit of duality that made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seem downright well-adjusted for Southern Miss (7-6, 4-4 in C-USA play).

The good version of the Golden Eagles hung a school-record 70 points on UAB, stayed with Auburn for the better part of three quarters and crushed a very good East Carolina team that upset Virginia Tech earlier in the season.

The bad? Try a loss to miserable Marshall. Or gut-wrenching defeats to UTEP and Memphis by a combined nine points. In five defeats, the Golden Eagle defense yielded 41.2 points per contest. A BB has better stopping power.

Hopefully, second-year head coach Larry Fedora can get some consistency out of his squad.

Offensively, Fedora is set with the exception of Brown’s up-in-the-air status. Austin Davis, lightly recruited out of the Meridian area, proved to be a smooth operator in Fedora’s spread attack. He matured rapidly as the season progressed and went 20-for-34 for 276 yards and two touchdowns against Troy. His dual-threat capabilities make him tough to stop and his improved accuracy makes him one of the conference’s best gunslingers.

Featured runner Damion Fletcher is back with the team after an arrest on a gun charge at his off-campus apartment. He is already the school’s all-time leading rusher and still has one more year to embellish his accomplishments in the Southern Miss record book.

Brown is the key X-factor. Can he return from the awful injury where his leg snapped in a revolting fashion? Even if he returns, will he be the same great athlete who caught a school-record 67 passes for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008? The smart money would be on his redshirting this season and returning at full strength in 2010. Before that dreadful moment, he was the best wide receiver in Conference USA and one of the best in the country. had a story about a setback that Fedora quickly countered in a release that stated that Brown had no setback, but that the team’s medical staff put Brown in a protective boot after soft-tissue swelling was detected in the break. Either way, Brown is likely not going to be at 100 percent for much of the season.

Defensively is where the Golden Eagles struggled the most in 2008. And that was with tackling machine Gerald McRath in the lineup. USM’s defense was tough against the run (139 yards per game allowed), but against the pass, they allowed 25 touchdowns thanks to an anemic pass rush that tallied 20 sacks in 13 games. Over the last five regular-season games, the defense gelled, allowing an average of 12 points per contest.

The secondary will be one of the best in the defensively porous C-USA. And big Anthony Gray, who at only 6-foot-tall and 300 pounds, is a tough man to block at nose tackle. He led the team in sacks with six.

So what’s the final verdict? If Brown is even 80 percent of his record-setting self, the defense improves and Davis continues his improvement as a passer and a runner, this team will challenge for the C-USA title.

If not, the Golden Eagles will win at least eight games and head to a mid-major bowl. The key will be Brown’s recovery. If he’s back, Fedora’s team has a strong chance for a trip to the C-USA title game.

Steve Wilson is sports editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail