(Part 3 of a 14-part Conference USA preview series)

Inexperience at quarterback and the offensive and defensive lines are areas of concern for a Southern Mississippi program coming off of consecutive bowl appearances.

USM (7-6, 4-4) finished strong in coach Jay Hopson's first season in Hattiesburg, upsetting Conference USA West Division champion Louisiana Tech 39-24 in the season finale and defeating Louisiana-Lafayette 28-21 in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

Six starters return from an offense which ranked fifth in C-USA in scoring (32.8 points per game), seventh in rushing (174.5 yards per game), fourth in passing (298.2 ypg) and fourth in total offense (472.8 ypg). Protecting the football proved problematic for the Golden Eagles, whose 32 turnovers (16 fumbles, 16 interceptions) led to a disastrous negative-17 turnover margin.

Sophomore Keon Howard and junior Kwadra Griggs are locked in a battle for the starting quarterback vacancy.

A former three-star recruit out of Laurel (Miss.) High, Howard started for the injured Nick Mullens in losses to Old Dominion and North Texas. He completed 22-of-50 passes for 365 yards with one touchdown and four picks on the season, while rushing for 98 yards vs. ODU.

Griggs, a transfer from Itawamba Community College, redshirted last fall.

Whoever wins the quarterback competition will be surrounded by a pair of established playmakers.

First-team All-C-USA running back Ito Smith (265 carries, 1,459 yards, 17 TDs; 43 receptions, 459 yards, 2 TDs) ranks No. 3 in school history with 4,629 all-purpose yards.

New Orleans Bowl MVP Allenzae Staggers caught 63 passes for 1,165 yards (18.5 yards per catch) and seven TDs, while returning 21 punts for a 9.8-yard average and one score.

Other veteran targets include senior wide receiver Isaiah Jones (20-331-2) and senior tight end Julian Allen (19-281-1). Also contending for playing time are Tyler (Texas) Junior College transfer Jimmie Terry and redshirt freshman Arvin Fletcher at left guard, senior Tyler Stutzman and redshirt freshman Wyatt Richthofen of New Iberia Catholic, and senior Jerry Harris and sophomore Drake Dorbeck at right tackle.

Southern Miss reported for preseason practice Monday with openings on the offensive line. Sophomore left tackle Ty Pollard and senior right guard Devin Farrior are the mainstays.

The defense will have a new look following the departure of seven starters, including first-team All-C-USA honorees D'Nerius Antoine (safety) and Dylan Bradley (tackle). USM led the conference in pass defense (174.9 ypg) and total defense (324.8 ypg), and ranked second nationally in third down conversions (.240).

Senior end Xavier Thigpen (33 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles) is the lone holdover on the front six. Junior end Darian Yancey logged 28 tackles, 5 TFL and 2.5 sacks as a part-time starter. Senior Harvey West Jefferson product Draper Riley (15 tackles, 3.5 TFL), who came on strong after missing the first six games with an injury, and junior LaDarius Harris (30 tackles, 4 TFL) are the leading candidates along the interior.

Vying for playing time at the two linebacker posts are senior Sherrod Ruff (37 tackles, 11 TFL, 1 sack, 3 forced fumbles), juniors Jeremy Sangster (7 tackles, 1 TFL) and Walden Davis (7 tackles) and redshirt freshman Racheem Boothe.

A trio of senior starters return in the secondary — cornerbacks Cornell Armstrong (47 tackles, 1 INT, 8 pass breakups) and Trae Collins (26 tackles, 1 INT), and nickel back Picasso Nelson Jr. (48 tackles, 2 INTs).

Junior Parker Shaunfield knocked down 12-of-14 field goals, including 6-of-7 from 40 yards and beyond, and was perfect on 40 PATs. Shaunfield could also take on the punting duties this season following the departure of the nation's leading punter, Tyler Sarrazin (53 punts, 44.7 average).

Junior Tez Parks averaged 19.4 yards per return on 19 kickoffs.

2017 SOUTHERN MISS SCHEDULE

(All times Central and subject to change)

DATE OPPONENT DATE

Sept. 2 Kentucky 3 p.m.

Sept. 9 Southern 6 p.m.

Sept. 16 at ULM 6 p.m.

Sept. 30 North Texas* 6 p.m.

Oct. 7 at UTSA* TBA

Oct. 14 UTEP* 6 p.m.

Oct. 21 at Louisiana Tech* 6 p.m.

Oct. 28 UAB* 6 p.m.

Nov. 4 at Tennessee TBA

Nov. 11 at Rice* 2:30 p.m.

Nov. 18 Charlotte* 2 p.m.

Nov. 25 at Marshall* 1:30 p.m.