A year after ranking near the bottom of Conference USA defensive leaderboards, new Defensive Coordinator Austin Armstrong and company have one priority for the season: bring the Nasty Bunch back.
“The first thing we wanted to do here is [teach] how to play defense,” Armstrong said. “Getting to coach in a place with such history and tradition, especially on the defensive side of the ball, it’s really almost a responsibility.”
Armstrong comes onto the scene from his stint as an inside linebackers coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he helped the Ragin Cajuns last season hold three top-five defensive national rankings. At 28-years-old, he is the youngest coordinator in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Despite his youth, Head Coach Will Hall has praised Armstrong as a “phenomenal” teacher, a skill that the new defensive coordinator has used to help players learn the new scheme. Armstrong said he has utilized the use of various learning styles to accommodate learning preferences.
“It’s a complicated but simple scheme at the same time,” senior linebacker Devin Thomas said. “When we don’t understand something, he [Armstrong] can bring it down to our level to help, and then we as a team tried to do a good job of listening and applying what they teach to us.”
Along with the new scheme, Armstrong and his staff have aimed to install a mentality that reflects the defense’s moniker: speed, toughness and physicality.
“We want to control the game and not let them control us,” Thomas said. “We don’t want to react, we want to be proactive. Armstrong, Coach Mark Kriner and all the defensive coaches have done a good job of putting that mindset into the game.”
In the new scheme, the secondary has transitioned to man-to-man coverage, a task that defensive back Malik Shorts said has taught him to be more patient on defense.
“It’s about knowing what to read and when to read it. After that, he [Armstrong] just wants us to play fast and be ourselves,” Shorts said back in spring camp.
Southern Miss’s defense is led by team veterans but has an influx of newcomers, including Ole Miss transfer safety Jay Stanley and Southeastern Louisiana transfer linebacker Josh Carr Jr.
The team has noted its depth at the linebacker position throughout camp, a corps that redshirt freshman linebacker TQ Newsome said is versatile.
“A lot of our guys can do a lot of different things. We have athleticism in the room, we’re a really smart bunch and we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Newsome said.
However, injuries have plagued the linebacker and defensive line position throughout camp. Multiple starters have sat out fall practice with injuries, causing Hall and his staff to prepare different rotations in those groups.
While the Nasty Bunch’s return will depend on the unit’s health, the framework is in place with the new scheme and a refreshed mindset.
“We know what’s coming to us and we’re going to be aggressive, go out there and strike somebody,” Thomas said. “That’s the whole mentality as defense: the Nasty Bunch is back.”