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USM Golden Eagles have sense of urgency in 2002

By By Stan Caldwell / EMG sports writer
Aug. 12, 2002
HATTIESBURG There is a hunger, a sense of urgency, at the University of Southern Mississippi heading into the 2002 football season, and the Golden Eagles can't wait to put the pedal to the metal.
"I think we got great commitment from the entire squad during the summer," said USM head coach Jeff Bower at Sunday's Media Day festivities at Roberts Stadium. "I've been impressed with the senior leadership we've gotten during the offseason. I think this is a hungry football team. I definitely think our players were hurt by what they did last year."
What USM did last year was lose its final two games of the season to finish 6-5 overall, 4-3 in Conference USA, and failed to earn a bowl bid for the first time since 1996.
"There's no doubt that we've lost some respect, especially in our conference," Bower said. "We won the conference the first three years, and we haven't won it the last two years. During that time, we've lost some games where we turned the ball over at critical times and beat ourselves."
Golden Eagle players dressed out in their game uniforms for Sunday's activities, which included a Meet the Eagles day for fans and a lengthy press conference for area media. The event marks the beginning of serious preparations for the Aug. 31 season opener against Jackson State at Roberts Stadium.
"I feel like we're ahead of where we were this time last year," said junior middle linebacker Rod Davis of Gulfport. "We have a lot to prove this year. I was at Memphis for the conference media day, and the Louisville players were talking about winning the championship the last two years, and showing off their rings. We want to show those guys that we're back on top of the totem pole in C-USA."
The Eagles put on full pads today to begin another week of two-a-day practices, and may conduct a scrimmage tonight. They are also scheduled to scrimmage Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning.
USM coaches will be looking hard this week at the one position where they don't yet have an answer. The Eagles return 18 starters this season, but they don't have a quarterback who has taken a meaningful snap in a game situation. Mickey D'Angelo, Zac White and Dustin Almond are all in a virtual dead heat for the starting nod.
"It's crazy," said D'Angelo, a redshirt freshman from Long Beach. "We're going every practice, every day, working hard to put ourselves in the best position to win the job. They're not going to tell us anything in two-a-days, and they probably won't make a decision until two or three days before the Jackson State game."
Quarterbacks coach Paul Petrino gave no hint as to who is running ahead, but said whoever gets the job will be better for having been through such a battle for the starting job.
"All three worked really hard in the summer," said Petrino. "They each wanted to be the last one off the field every night, they tried to outwork each other, and they were all the time grabbing receivers to do a little extra work."
Whoever gets the job will enjoy working behind a veteran offensive line that returns four of five starters.
"I think we're going to have to take some pressure off the quarterback," said junior center Jim Hicks of Philadelphia. "We've had a veteran quarterback back there, but he's gone. Hopefully, the fact that we've played together two years now, and an improved running game, will make their job easier, whoever gets the job."
That puts the spotlight on senior Derrick Nix, who returns to lead the USM running attack after missing most of 2000 and all of 2001 with injury and illness. Nix was a popular figure Sunday, and he told fans and media alike that he feels, "100 percent.
"I'm not rusty, and my timing's pretty good," said Nix, who rushed for over 1,000 yards each in 1998 and 1999. "I need to get in better condition going through two-a-days. I hadn't been through them in two years, and I'm not quite in the shape I need to be in."
Since Nix reported slimmer, stronger and quicker than ever, that statement may tell USM coaches all they need to hear about how hungry their team really is.
And, despite the disappointments of recent seasons, fan excitement is at an all-time high, thanks in part to a favorable schedule that features six home games for the first time ever. Bower attributes much of that to the Jackson State game.
"Has there ever been this much excitement for a football game on this campus?" Bower asked. "We're going to have a sellout crowd here and a lot of people on our campus, and it's all because we're playing an in-state school. It's a good start to the season."

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