Southern Miss digging deep on roster for RBs
Navy's got one of the best rushing offenses in the country. Southern Miss is pretty good at running the football, too.
At least the Golden Eagles were.
But that was before a rash of injuries to the team's top three running backs forced USM coach Larry Fedora to dig into his depth chart for possible replacements when Southern Miss (4-1) travels to face Navy (2-2) on Saturday in Annapolis, Md.
Sophomore Jeremy Hester, who started the season as the team's No. 4 running back, could be the starter for this weekend's game and says he's ready to fill the void.
''I hate the fact that my teammates are down and it's down to me,'' Hester said. ''But I'm happy to have the opportunity and I'm ready to show the coaches I can have a huge impact on this offense.''
Navy ranks 4th in the nation with 352.3 rushing yards per game, and its unique triple-option offense can provide plenty of problems for opposing defenses.
Fedora acknowledged the Midshipmen's scheme will be difficult to handle, but he's left much of that preparation to defensive coordinator Dan Disch. The more offensive-minded Fedora, along with offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, is charged with figuring out how to keep Southern Miss productive on the ground.
The Golden Eagles gained a school-record 654 total yards in Saturday's 48-24 victory over Rice, including 370 on the ground. They rank 30th in the country with 199 rushing yards per game, but injuries in the backfield have begun to mount at an alarming rate.
Desmond Johnson started the season as the Golden Eagles' No. 1 back, but he's missed the past four weeks with an apparent knee injury. Sophomore Kendrick Hardy and freshman Jamal Woodyard have performed admirably in Johnson's absence, but both players left the Rice game because of injuries.
Hardy, who rushed for 172 yards against Rice, had his right arm in a sling at Tuesday's practice. Woodyard appeared limited.
Fedora continued his policy of not disclosing specifics about injuries, and didn't comment on the availability of Johnson, Hardy or Woodyard, but it's become clear that the Golden Eagles will need some help against Navy.
Hester and junior Tracy Lampley both expect their roles to increase. Lampley started the season at receiver, though his original position is running back and he's had several cameos in the backfield throughout the season.
Neither running back is considered a bruiser. Hester is listed at just 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, while Lampley is 5-foot-9 and 168 pounds. That didn't stop either of them from having success against Rice - Lampley rushed for 70 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, and Hester gained 44 yards on eight carries.
''What I did in the game against Rice, I've been working on as far as vision and hitting the hole fast,'' Hester said. ''I think I executed pretty well so it gives me quite a bit of confidence heading into this next game.''
Fedora didn't seem concerned that the diminutive duo might get the bulk of the carries against Navy. He said if everyone else does their job, any of the team's running backs should be capable of keeping the Golden Eagles' offense moving.
Southern Miss' offense isn't one dimensional. Senior quarterback Austin Davis has thrown for 1,275 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions this season while completing more than 60 percent of his passes.
While some of the faces have changed, Fedora expects the offense to be just as effective.
''It's going to be based on how we do (on the offensive line) to be honest with you,'' Fedora said. ''If we get our backs to the second and third level, come off the ball and be physical, then we'll be fine.''
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