Jon Wiener 1 ON 1 with Jay Hopson
The final hurdle. Big SEC games. And the south Mississippi dirt.
Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson opens up after his fourth spring in Hattiesburg.
How different is it for you, your program, going into year number four now?
Well, I like our athleticism right now. I think we’re developing into a deep football team. We were thin. We certainly had some good players, but in 2017, I think we played with 68 on scholarship. We’re getting back into that 81-82 range, and the following year we’ll get back to 85. Before I got here, there were a lot of college graduates and transfers. That was kind of the recruiting model. You’re naturally going to be a better football team when you’ve got 23 and 24 year-olds. But to be a healthy football program, you have to have great balance. (Two years ago) we were going through spring with four offensive linemen. I was like, “Great gosh.”
When you’re having these mass overhauls at positions, that’s always tough. But I’m really pleased with where we are as far as our talent level. That’s one thing where I really think we’re on the right path.
When you came in a lot of people thought, “He’s going to be able to get the Mississippi kids they need and keep them in state.” How do you think you’ve done with that?
Really good. Now, I’d sign 25 Mississippi kids if I could. But sometimes, some of them go to Ole Miss or State, or Alabama or LSU. We’re going to go nationwide. We’re going to try to sign all the Mississippi kids that we can sign. But naturally, if a kid picks Alabama or Mississippi State, then guess what? We’ll go wherever we’ve got to go. I want to make sure that I sign 25 players that can play in the NFL. There’s got to be something in them that I think, “He’s an NFL player”. Otherwise, I’m going to move on down the road and try to find that guy.
I think you guys were sort of under the radar defensively, how good y’all were last year. Obviously, the offense struggled a little bit. Do you feel like the pieces are in place now?
I do. We’ve got everybody back on both sides. I think this team’s back for the next two years almost, because we’ve been playing with some young guys. So I think the pieces are there.
Defensively, I think … I’m a head coach, I worry about winning and losing, not statistics, but we’ve been in the top 20 the last three years. The big thing is, we were close last year. You look at the UAB game, we lost that one in overtime. Two years ago, we lost to North Texas, had a bad third quarter. It’s been from one quarter to one play the last couple of years. But guess what? That’s football, so we got to find that play. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do.
This will be your fourth year coaching (at USM). Do you feel like, hey, it’s kind of now or never?
My goal has not changed. We want to be a winner, which we’ve been every year. We want to compete for championships, which we’ve done every year. I do think our athletic level is getting better and better. And I think our depth is getting better and better. I’m blessed to have a lot of wonderful men out here coaching for me. So we’re excited. Our journey is to keep getting better and just knock that door down.
These big SEC games: going to play Alabama, going to play Tennessee, playing Mississippi State. What are your thoughts on those as a coach?
I think that’s great because that’s kind of what we are. That’s Southern Miss. A lot of teams like to play down or avoid those SEC teams. But I don’t think that’s our DNA. Our tradition has always been playing SEC football teams, and we have a lot of respect for every team we play, in the SEC and the Conference USA. But we’re always going to play a competitive, tough schedule at Southern Miss. That’s just the way it is here.
Some people say, “Oh, they’re guaranteed (money) games.”. But you’re saying, “Hey, we’re playing these teams because we want to line up and play with them”?
Yeah. I think those are the games that, if you look at Southern Miss, our history, our tradition, those are the games we’ve played. And those are games your recruits want to play in. So I look at those as positives. We played Alabama, they lost the national championship game last year. Guess what? That’s what you want to measure yourself against. Again, I was here as an assistant, as a coordinator, and that’s who we played. So, it’s just Southern Miss football and that’s what we’ve always done.
How much of a focus is the crowd for you in terms of filling the stadium and getting…
I think it’s always big, but our crowd’s been pretty consistent for the last 15-20 years. We want to get over the top. One of the things we’re trying to do is get as many of the local games as we can, because I think that’s a big thing. I’ve scheduled Alcorn (State). I’ve scheduled Jackson State. We actually have a 2-for-1 with Mississippi State. We’re playing South Alabama. We’ve played (Louisiana) Monroe. Tulane, we brought them on the schedule.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we have 40,000 here for that Alcorn game. That would be a big crowd. And that’s something that is important. Tulane was an old rivalry. I’d love to get a Memphis back on the schedule and those guys like that, just because those are the local games.
What impact has the constant turnover with the administration had on you?
I think as a football coach, Jon, you just want to concentrate on football. You don’t worry about all the outside stuff. I am excited about (new athletic director) Jeremy (McClain). I think he’s a Southern Miss guy. And that’s something that’s big at Southern Miss. I know he loves Southern Miss, and I love Southern Miss. So you’ve got guys here that care.
I got to ask you about your offensive coordinator position and the Art Briles deal. What, if anything, surprised you about it?
I’m going to be honest with you, Jon. I’m not going to get into that. It is what it is, and I certainly respect all decisions. We’ll just move on.
How do you feel about Buster Faulkner?
I really am excited about Buster. Buster is an outstanding coach. He’s a guy that I really fell in love with. Coaching is a big fraternity. We all kind of know what’s going on, and with Buster, I had a lot of guys that I respect that had nothing but just great things to say about him. And when I interviewed him, I really kind of fell in love in that regard, again. I thought, “Man, this guy, he’s a sharp football coach.” I think he’s going to do a tremendous job and just excited about him.
How important is it for you guys to fire on all cylinders offensively?
It’s always important, you know.
But I mean considering how good the defense is, and where Jack (Abraham) is.
Well, it’s a big thing because like I said, there’s a lot of really, really strong pieces of the puzzle here. So certainly we want to be that explosive offense. But the defense can’t rest on their laurels, they got a job to do this year too. But I think we have the potential to be an outstanding football team. I really am excited about this football team. Again, we’re always going to go play tough competition, but this is a team that to me has an edge, and they’re athletic. You’re talking to a football coach. I’m never going to predict anything. But I can just tell you, I like this team, I like the talent and I’m excited about it.
It’s funny, some coaches when you watch them in practice, they’re all “Rah, rah”, yelling … you seem pretty reserved out there.
One thing I learned a long time ago … this is my eighth year as a head coach. I’m the head coach. Most coaches you see yelling, they’re either pulling for the offense or the defense. I’m the guy that’s strictly neutral. I want to see the offense make some explosive plays and score touchdowns, and I want to see the defense have some good stops. I usually leave the scrimmage happy when it’s pretty much dead down the line, when the offensive coordinators are walking out saying, “Man, I don’t know. Did we get them?” and the defensive coach is saying, “Man, I don’t know. Did we win that scrimmage?” That’s usually when I’m real happy when I go home.
It’s like they said, Larry Brown was only happy when he was unhappy.
That’s right, that’s very true. As long as I leave the scrimmage where I’m like, “Man, I don’t know who won out there.” It’s just the way it is when you’re a head coach. You realize, “You know what? You want to be good on all phases.”
You like being here in Hattiesburg?
Yeah, I’m a South Mississippi boy. You know how it is being from Jackson…..man, I always say, “Hey, they’re going to put me in the dirt down here in South Mississippi.”