HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) -- Southern Miss coaches and players say it's simple: Play the best defense and win Conference USA.
Sure, we know all about Damion Fletcher, DeAndre Brown and all of coach Larry Fedora's offensive weapons. Reams have been written about them. If the Golden Eagles are going to contend for a championship this year, though, their defense will need to build a reputation.
"We're trying to be a defense that teams fear," middle linebacker Korey Williams said. "That's what we're aiming for this year."
Fedora has put a great deal of energy into remaking his defense in the 18 months since he was hired. There's more depth in the secondary, for instance. And the makeover didn't stop there.
"When we got here we had three defensive linemen, now we have nine," Fedora said. "So we've improved a lot there, not just with depth, but with the talent level. But there's still a lot of work to do."
Defensive end Anthony Gray spent the offseason preparing his body for that work and is glad he did. Things have definitely gotten more intense over the last year.
"There's a lot of competition going on," Gray said. "It's two a days, anything can happen during two a days. I could almost lose my spot during two a days."
And Gray's a preseason all-Conference USA pick. But that's what happens when a team returns eight starters. The unit started slow but finished last season on a downhill sprint, leading a five-game win streak. They held opponents to 8 points per game in their final four regular season games and beat Troy in the New Orleans Bowl for a 7-6 finish and 15th straight winning season.
Just seven months later, so much more is expected. Fedora and his players want to be included in any championship discussion.
"I think that's the type of caliber team we have," quarterback Austin Davis said. "We've got plenty of talent and we're putting it all together. That's the type of thing we do at Southern Miss -- we compete for the conference championship -- and I think that's definitely in our grasp this season."
To become a dominant unit the Southern Miss defense must replace an irreplaceable player. Middle linebacker Gerald McRath skipped what would have been a sixth season and joined the Tennessee Titans as a fourth-round pick. The Golden Eagles also lost starting linebacker Tokumbo Abanikanda.
That's 221 tackles and 20.5 for loss gone, but there's a lot of confidence in their replacements. Fedora believes the 230-pound Williams will become a dominant player at middle linebacker. And the other new starter, Martez Smith, is even faster than McRath, who used his speed to become one of the nation's top tacklers the last two seasons.
There aren't a lot of holes to fill on offense, either, though it will be difficult to replace tight end Shawn Nelson, a Buffalo Bills fourth-round draft pick. Fletcher, Southern Miss' career rushing leader, makes a run at the record books again as he tries to become just the ninth player to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons.
And more is expected of Davis, the walk-on quarterback who rewrote the freshman record book, and the 6-foot-6 Brown, the nation's top freshman receiver last year. Those two combined for 12 touchdowns and more than 1,100 yards, and expect much more this season from an offense that was 20th in the nation.
"There's so much excitement about football," Fedora said. "Our players sensed that all spring, all summer. That keeps them motivated to work out when it's 105 degrees out there, and they're out there running 100s. I'm going to expect us to pick up where we left off."