WOTS is that yesterday's post on potential defensive coordinators is for naught and we are most likely looking at an internal hire: Jay Hopson, the linebackers coach and former Southern Miss defensive coordinator.
When it looked like Hopson was destined for the DC job last year I scoured Sunday Morning Quarterback for any information the internet's most prominent Southern Miss fan had provided on his defensive coordinator and assembled the results in "Jay Hopson Dissected." I also fired off an email to Matt Hinton himself, asking him for a take. By the time I got a reply Hopson was in, but as the linebackers coach, and the reply was no longer relevant.
Now it is, and I present to you Hinton's take on Hopson. Warning: it is not puppy dog tails. I'll let this stand on its own; further commentary in a separate post. Before we get to the nitty gritty, an update from Hinton:
Re: Hopson, I should add to that e-mail that over the last couple years I've come to really appreciate the talent on USM's killer defenses in 1999-2000, including Adalius Thomas and Patrick Surtain. The defenses immediately following those were anchored by a couple all-American linebackers, Rod Davis and Michael Boley, and a few other very good players. Hopson didn't have anyone of that caliber from 2005-07.
So, again, meh performance in the doldrum years of a coach heading out to pasture.
Hopson would make a lot more sense as a position coach at Michigan, as some of your commenters have noted. He’s young and didn’t distinguish himself in the job – his defenses occasionally looked good against some of the weaker teams in Conference USA, but I wouldn’t even read into the high finishes within the conference (first in scoring defense all three years of Hopson’s tenure, first or second all three years in almost every other relevant category) because USM is the only school in the league that still pretends to play a little defense, and certainly the only one that still played like it expected to win games with it. This year the “Nasty Bunch,” as the D was known in fatter times, allowed 24 points to Marshall, 34 to Central Florida, 29 to Memphis, 30 to UTEP and 31 in the disgraceful loss to Rice, the last game being the reason the entire staff is searching for work right now (though, to be as fair as possible about such a disaster, offensive turnovers were far more responsible).
It’s not fair to look at the outcomes against Tennessee, Florida, Virginia Tech, NC State and the like because of the talent deficit USM faces against those teams, although Southern Miss had a short stretch of better-than-respectable (if inconsistent) defensive success against much bigger schools in the late nineties, and the fact that we tasted the blood of annual top 10 national units in those years may have led to some unfair expectations towards the defense in the last few years - those teams had Adalius Thomas and Patrick Surtain, two future Pro Bowlers, and though there's been some excellent individual talent since, Hopson hasn’t even coached a player who’s landed a regular NFL roster spot (though current linebacker Gerald McRath will certainly change that in the next couple years). Again, though, USM has not consistently played well against C-USA offenses with comparable or lesser talent since well before Hopson was on board, and though his overall numbers were slightly worse than his predecessors’, he was just status quo. It’s putting it kindly to say his defenses in Hattiesburg were mediocre. Generally I’ll always associate him with underachieving teams, even if the defense was still always better than the wretched offense.
Michigan fans will not like this, but Hopson’s defenses seemed to suffer from complete paralysis, mental and physical, against offenses that require more discipline than baseline reading and reacting. The team is rarely on TV, and never against any quality opponent, so I don’t get to watch them week to week, but the few times USM has been on a midweek game the last three years have ranged from frustrating to embarrassing. I remember seething through a loss at Tulsa in 2006 because the Hurricane ran a dinky spread offense with no hint of a deep threat whatsoever, and Southern never adjusted to, looked prepared for or even aware of the existence of the possibility that Tulsa would keep running the same junior-high-basic read option play. Take this play from the 2006 C-USA Championship loss to Houston as a very extreme example of a trend against any kind of option – it’s not great quality, but watch the reaction of the safeties, #6 (walked up here like an OLB) and #15:
They react like they have never conceived of a very simple, old-fashioned triple option play. That game is another good example of the consistent failure to adjust, and to be content to sit in zones without much blitzing and refusal to put pressure on the dinky horizontal passing game teams like Houston run, instead letting them run for miles of yards after catch. This year, the loss to Cincinnati in the bowl appeared to be more of a talent issue (the speed that that happened is also disturbing, as USM owned Cincinnati in C-USA less than five years ago), because Ben Mauk had to make a lot of plays under pressure, but after some early problems he carved the Eagles up pretty easily. Boise State in September came out firing and doing whatever it wanted offensively from the first gun. Basically, I always felt Hopson’s defense were put on their heels easily, accepted trying to bend and not break and rarely tried to force offenses out of their comfort zone. But this could be more of a talent issue than I realize; USM has been very lean in the secondary and really struggled in man-to-man coverage when it wasn’t playing too soft. It’s hard to make the translation to Michigan’s players.
Schematically, USM’s base has always been a 4-3, but it’s also always shown a lot of variability – prior to Hopson, it was regularly in “organized chaos” mode, with two down linemen, sometimes one down lineman on passing downs, people hopping around and shifting irregularly before the snap and blitzes coming from god knows where. His units were very, very conservative by this standard. They were also regularly in the nickel, simply as a result of playing a lot of spread offenses in-conference. Most of the time, as you noted earlier from a previous post of mine, this was a three-down look, technically a 3-3-5 because one of the outside linebackers was a DB, but closer to a 3-4 in actuality – unlike the stack West Virginia ran under Rodriguez, which is an eight-man front with one safety deep and two up like linebackers (I think of it as a 3-5), Hopson’s 3-3-5 generally kept two safeties deep. It was much less effective against the run, but that apparently was the tradeoff he felt was necessary to protect the secondary. The numbers show a stronger pass rush than I remember in 2005 or 2007, but again, I only saw USM in person or on TV a handful of times in any of those years.