Liberty and Southern Miss met in the coronavirus pandemic-altered 2020 season, with the Flames using a record-setting performance from quarterback Malik Willis to win 56-38 in Lynchburg. The teams open the 2022 season to wrap up the home-and-home series. That means a familiar staple returns with weekly Q&As with an opposite-paced writer to help preview the Flames showdown. David Eckert covers Southern Miss soccer, baseball, and basketball for the Hattiesburg American. He stops to answer five questions (plus one) about Southern Miss. For his Golden Eagles coverage, follow him on Twitter: @davideckert98.
N&A: This Southern Miss team is going to look awfully different than what Liberty fans saw in Lynchburg in 2020. What has Will Hall done to help transform the Golden Eagles into a program that aims to contend for the Sun’s championships? Belt Conference?
DELAWARE: I think the Golden Eagles are probably a year or two away from that at this stage. Last year didn’t offer much insight into what they’ll be like in the future, at least on the field. His entire quarterback room was injured. They had countless other injury problems while playing on just 62 scholarships. The result was the ugly 3-9 season they had. Off the field, I think Hall has done a lot to reconnect the show to its roots. He has recruited pretty well, and brought in 10 Division I transfers this offseason. This season should be a first real look at what a fully functional Southern Miss show will look like under Hall’s direction.
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N&A: Speaking of Sun Belt, this is Southern Miss’s first season in the new league. What is the sense of excitement in Hattiesburg for the new conference venue and how will it affect soccer and other sports programs?
DELAWARE: I haven’t been able to find a single person who isn’t excited. The Conference USA run had stalled and it was time for a change. I think most of the excitement is based on geography. You look at the Sun Belt West and you have South Alabama, Troy, Louisiana and ULM relatively close. It just makes sense. The ESPN platform offered by the Sun Belt also helps. Southern Miss fans lean toward the old-school mentality, and I think a lot of them appreciate that the Sun Belt provides a sort of contrarian base option compared to the rejection of the regional structure that we’re seeing at the top tier of University. game right now.
N&A: Ty Keyes is starting at quarterback in Game 1. He looked good in limited action last season before an ankle injury sidelined him for the last eight games. How has he looked on the field during training camp and what does he bring to the Southern Miss offense?
DELAWARE: Keyes hasn’t had a perfect training camp, but he has shown great ability, and I think that’s what you’d expect from a talented quarterback entering his second year on campus. He can make just about any pitch on the field and is extremely mobile. Don’t be surprised if he carries the ball more than 10 times on Saturday night, that will be a big part of what he tries to do in Southern Miss. If he can limit mistakes as he goes through his growing pains, Southern Miss can win a lot of games this year.
N&A: This isn’t talked about enough: Southern Miss’s defense ranked in the top 80 in eight major statistical categories last season. Do you see this unit getting even better in 2022?
DELAWARE: I’m doing it, not necessarily because of anything the unit has done, but because I hope the offense provides a better platform for the defense this season. I don’t think the offense is going to go through their entire quarterback depth chart and turn the ball over 2.6 times per game to put the defense behind the 8-ball consistently. The defense brings back the vast majority of its talent from a season ago, and with a really sharp playcaller in Austin Armstrong it should only get better.
N&A: What are your keys to Southern Miss winning on Saturday night?
DELAWARE: The first thing is that they need to win the battle of turnover. They only did it twice last year, but won both games by double figures. It won’t be easy with a veteran quarterback like Charlie Brewer at center for the Flames, but to me he’s the number one item on the list. From there, I think they’ll need some big plays from the likes of Jason Brownlee and Jakarius Caston. I’m not sure this is an offense that’s going to dink and dunk down the field and control the clock for 60 minutes. They’ll probably need a break or two on special teams, too.
N&A: Many Liberty fans are expected to travel to Hattiesburg for the first meeting between the shows. For those fans making the trip, what suggestions do you have for those looking to eat something, drink something, or visit any tourist attractions?
DELAWARE: I’m still learning the ins and outs of the food scene in Hattiesburg. Crescent City Grill, Keg and Barrel, and The Mexican Kitchen are solid options. If you’re looking for a really cool place to grab a cup of coffee, T-Bones is my destination of choice. There are also some options when it comes to killing time. The Lucky Rabbit is one of the most interesting stores you will ever go to, it currently has a Stranger Things theme and is a great place to just walk around. There’s always the Hattiesburg Zoo too. Also, Southern Miss has a strong pre-game scene at Spirit Park.